Did Rec tax really deliver?

By Charles Sercombe

When Hamtramck voters first approved of the school district’s recreation tax, a lot of promises were made.

A massive makeover of Veterans Memorial Park.

New tennis courts.

Programs galore.

Vacant city lots turned into “tot lots.”

And the topper: establish an endowment fund that would forever keep recreation going without having to ask taxpayers to renew the 5-mill tax.

So how did that all work out? In the coming weeks, The Review will be looking at the recreation program and see what promises actually got delivered, and what didn’t.

But as for that endowment? That didn’t happen and in fact, one year before the 10-year tax expired, the school district asked voters to renew the tax for another 10 years. Voters did just that in 2006, despite growing signs of deep economic trouble facing not only this region, but the nation as well.

Back in 1997, when the tax was first proposed and eventually approved by voters, the city had just gone through a bruising year in a debate over whether to develop the front portion of Veterans Park into a combination police station and public housing activities center.

Opponents of the plan quickly mobilized and won support from the community to block that development. That debate, however, divided the city in a heated and vicious political war. Lawsuits and court motions were traded back and forth and eventually the matter went to the voters.

Voters approved a new city ordinance that required voter approval of any development on park land.

After the fervor of saving public parks was over, the community was in the mood to reenergize Veterans Park, which had long stood neglected and under-used. The time was right to ask the public to support a recreation tax, as long as that tax focused on improving parks.

But there was also a powerful anti-tax sentiment as well. Supporters of the tax thought they faced an uphill battle to win over voters. They were correct. The tax barely squeaked by with a margin of 177 votes.

Proponents of the tax took that message to heart and promised to deliver and be fierce watchdogs over how the public’s money would be spent. But after a year or so, those players disappeared from the scene.

Revenue from the tax was even better than expected. Supporters said the 5 mills would generate about $700,000 a year. The first year brought in over $743,000.

As the housing market skyrocketed, the tax collection grew to $1 million a year.

At first, the cost of administration was kept relatively low, just a little over $170,000 a year. Strangely, very little of the budget went into programs, park improvements or the purchase of equipment. Some $85,000 was budgeted for capital improvements, but only $1,200 was spent, according to an audit report for 1997-98.

At least recreation officials kept their promise on saving money: by year’s end, there was a surplus of $479,000 – which you could say was a pretty good start toward establishing an endowment.

But over the next couple of years that saving was wiped out when it was decided to replace the grass field in Keyworth Stadium with an artificial turf.

Nevertheless, a surplus regrew to $1 million, which is what the Recreation Department now has. But that amount is far short of establishing an endowment that can permanently fund the department.

Salaries, benefits and employees have grown, too, over the years. Salaries and benefits now carve out over $500,000 a year – half the revenue the tax generates each year.

It’s come the point where the Recreation Department is now seen as an employment agency, said former School Boardmember Al Shulgon, whose wife, Hedy, is currently a school boardmember and is an outspoken critic of how money is spent in the department.

In the weeks to come, we will explore what kind of bang taxpayers got for their buck.

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