Financial crisis in City Hall? Not really

By Charles Sercombe

Is there a financial meltdown in Hamtramck City Hall?

If you were at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, that would be the impression you were left with.

According to what was said at the meeting, and to our sources, here’s the latest dilemma facing the city:
Because a key Water Department employee fell behind in sending out water bills, and for other reasons as well, the department burned through $3 million to pay its own bills.

This also led to an $800,000 budget deficit.

And that resulted — either directly or indirectly– in the firing of two employees.

If certain members of the City Council have their way there could be more employees on the chopping block, including the city manager and finance director.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Tom Jankowski got into an angry exchange with City Manager Bill Cooper over the management of the Water Department.

Jankowski accused Cooper of running the city down and screamed out: “You need to go.”

Cooper snapped back that Jankowski should make a motion to fire him, which Jankowski promptly did.
That motion went nowhere.

But it revealed a very divided City Council, and an administration that is becoming vulnerable.

Cooper did point out that the Water Department is climbing out of its deficit, which is now $37,000, and all the water bills are up to date.

A bigger question, though, is will the department be able to meet its bills in the next few months. Cooper said that if he has to, he will dip into the city’s General Fund.

In a telephone interview, Finance Director Nevrus Nazarko said the Water Department never reached an $800,000 deficit. He also said that the department’s budget has “wiggled along for years.”

“Money has been trickling in, but a little less than usual,” he added.

The city’s financial picture was rocky, to say the least, before this outburst. By early next year, the city will be in deficit spending, meaning it will be spending more money than it receives.

As for Cooper’s future, it’s up in the air. However, if he were to be fired, the city would be almost entirely rudderless. Cooper is filling multiple roles as acting fire chief and acting police chief, in addition to his city manager duties.

The Department of Public Works is now under the supervision of a consultant as well.

The city is also applying for a major grant to perform an engineering study of the city’s sewer system. If the city is awarded the grant and accepts it, it must begin repairs within five years or else be on the hook to pay back the $1 million grant.

Councilmember Cathie Gordon said there are many unanswered questions about the city’s current and future financial status. She said that with Cooper filling so many roles in the city, it leaves the council little choice on what to do.

“If we get rid of Cooper, some people will applaud us, but then what?” she said.

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