The mayor in her own words about the State of the City

Editor’s note: Below is an excerpt of Mayor Karen Majewski’s State of the City Address:

This is the seventh time I’ve come before you to review the path we’ve traveled together in the past year, to give you a preview of where we hope to go in the days ahead, and to invite you to walk that road–the rough spots and the smooth–together with your neighbors, and with me.

Your presence here today signifies one of Hamtramck’s fundamental strengths — we are more than a city, we are a community. We are more than a place where people lay their heads at night, we are a place where people invest their hearts and souls.

If we sometimes argue with each other, it’s because what happens here matters so deeply to all of us. It’s because Hamtramck so often inspires and delights us. Sometimes it also confounds us. Sometimes it drives us crazy. And, sometimes it breaks our hearts. That, everyone, is what love is all about.

We are all here because we love this crazy place, our own sweet little village. Let’s remember that deeply emotional, even inexplicable attachment to this little piece of earth we share; let’s remember that it can unite us as easily as divide us; let’s remember that it is, like Hamtramck itself, our common ground.

Folks say that nothing joins people together like shared adversity, and we’ve had our share of it in the last few years. You’ll hear about some of it today. But that is not the whole story of the last year. And it’s not the whole story of who we are. Despite all the difficulties we’ve shared with so many other communities around the nation, and especially here in Southeast Michigan, we’ve managed to accomplish much to be proud of, and set the stage for what I am heartened to think can be good things to come. That says so much about the good that’s in this place, and in all of you.

One very good thing that has happened since my last State of the City is the promotion of Max Garbarino as our new Chief of Police. The department is evolving under his leadership, implementing civilian dispatch and other long-awaited restructuring initiatives. New K9 and Weights and Measures positions are in progress, and the traffic safety program, while not always popular, is slowing down drivers and putting more officers on the street. The department has negotiated better terms with its own contractors, as well as settled new labor contracts with significant savings to the City. …

The Fire Department has also undergone some major changes in the last year, including many retirements and promotions. Not to mention that we were very happy to welcome Paul Wilk as our new Fire Chief.

The department has been working diligently to secure grant funding to take the burden off the city’s general fund. In May the department took delivery of a 2012 Sutphen Aerial Tower to replace the 1986 model. The tower was purchased through a FEMA grant totaling $700,000.

The department has also submitted a FEMA grant for the purchase of new ambulance and firefighting equipment. And most recently the department’s grant committee with the help of the acting city manager and an outside grant team worked on and submitted a SAFER Grant to FEMA for the funding of 12 fire fighters’ salaries and benefits for 2 years. This grant will help prevent looming layoffs in the department. An additional grant to place Automatic External Defibulators in city hall is also in the works. …

Our Department of Public Services also welcomes a new director, Steve Shaya. With the new director come initiatives to improve processes and accountability. The department has clamped down on delinquent water bills and started an aggressive collection program on large outstanding water accounts.

After starting out with a $30,000 delinquency, the program now shows a positive cash flow. New controls for billing disputes and dismissals have regularized departmental procedures. And an aggressive enforcement program aimed at those who tamper with or attempt to bypass our water meters is also now in place.

The Building and Engineering Department has played an important part in the construction and renovation going on all over town as part of the last stages of the R31 project, funded by the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The department has been involved in the process from preliminary and final site plan review, to rough and final inspections of all trades, to the handling of all architectural and engineering concerns. And if you’ve noticed just how much construction has been going on around town, you know that that is a tall order.

The Department of Public Services has taken over the demolition of abandoned buildings, working to remove these eyesores and clean up the sites. Most recently, three long-term problem houses have been taken down: on Faber Street, at the corner of Trowbridge and Brombach, and at Wyandotte and Lumpkin. Two more in the works.

After making changes in the Rental Department, we are starting to see more of our residents coming in and registering their rental properties. The result will not only be more revenue for the city, but more importantly our residents who rent will be assured of housing that is up to code and meets safety requirements.

For many years the city has also faced the problem of construction going on without permits. The department’s monthly statistics now show that the focused efforts of Building and Engineering Inspectors are resulting in greatly increased revenue from permits. In addition, we have the assurance that work being performed on our residences and commercial buildings is being done safely and in conformity with codes and regulations. These may sound like simple and obvious procedures, but anyone who lives here for long knows that this has not always been the case. …

Another large-scale public works project is also underway–the Hamtramck Renewal Project. MichCon is replacing service lines and gas mains from Roosevelt to Caniff. I know is causing a lot of headaches for residents. We’ll all be glad when it’s over. But we’ll also be glad that it was done. …

The density, hominess, and security of Hamtramck’s neighborhoods are among our points of pride. Equally a part of Hamtramck’s unique urban character is our traditional downtown. It is the Downtown Development Authority that works with business owners on Jos. Campau to maintain and improve our trademark commercial strip, through programs like the Façade Grant Program.

The program is funded by Community Development Block Grant dollars allocated by the Community and Economic Development Department and approved by council. In the last year local business and property owners received $12,500 for architectural design services and $75,000 for construction services to restore their facades to their original condition. …

It’s well known that green space in Hamtramck, once known for its tree canopy, is well below the average. It will take some time and concerted effort from residents, the city, and outside organizations to turn this situation around, but the DDA helped further that process when, with the help of a DTE Tree Grant, it organized and facilitated the removal 35 dead, diseased and/or dangerous trees along Jos. Campau and the side streets between Caniff and Holbrook. Twenty-two of the trees were replaced with new urban friendly species and six new trees were also planted at the entrance to Veteran’s Park. The remaining 13 trees will be replaced over the next three years as funding becomes available. …

… I know everyone is waiting for the opening of the Hamtramck Historical Museum. We should have an official announcement of its final location any day now, and then it will be full steam ahead to get preliminary renovations underway, items moved in, and programs started. The Historical Commission and its many supporters will soon be creating an important destination for our many visitors and for our residents. This has been made possible through generous grants from MSHDA and the General Motors Foundation, as well as a major private donation and the help of our many, many supporters. …

The City of Hamtramck Plan Commission recently granted Preliminary Site Plan Approval to Green Power Technology, the company that will be developing the Hamtramck Resource Recovery Center on the former Missant site on Conant.
The current 300,000 square foot obsolete building will be demolished and replaced with a $300 million dollar state of the art, energy efficient recycling and resource recovery facility. Essentially, this operation takes municipal waste, uses an automated system to sort out valuable recyclables, then uses high temperature steam to break down the remaining organic material into a bio-mass–synthetic coal–that is then pelletized and reused to create a green energy source.

All operations are conducted inside the building in an environmentally friendly manner. This development will bring up to 150 new jobs to Hamtramck and is expected to bring over one million dollars in direct revenue to the City through increased property taxes and hosting fees. …

The City is in final stages of negotiating a shuttle service that will connect the City to Midtown Detroit, the SMART bus system on Woodward Avenue, Amtrak, Wayne State University/the College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Medical Center, Eastern Market, and the Detroit Riverfront. This system will both serve the need of current Hamtramck residents, as well as attract many potential transit users to the City.

Unfortunately American Axle has shut down operation at its Detroit/Hamtramck facility; however, the entire complex is for sale and has generated a great deal of interest. More than likely several smaller operations will move into the complex, thus making the City less susceptible to the whims of a single corporate entity.

General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly–the Poletown plant–is causing us headaches again (this time with a tax dispute that will not just deprive us of expected personal property tax revenue on plant equipment, but require that we repay monies that were paid for legitimate taxes over the past several years.) But in the long run GM’s long-term investment in the plant, with the assembly of the Volt and now the Chevy Malibu, should generate additional tax revenue for the City.

That said, the financial challenges in the past year have been enormous.

The past year has been one of the most financially challenging on record, for the City of Hamtramck, and that’s saying a lot. Due to the decline in revenues from various sources–property taxes, American Axle, GM, City of Detroit etc.–Hamtramck has exhausted the positive fund balance that we worked so hard to build by the end of fiscal year 2011, and we’ve ended the fiscal year 2012 with a budget deficit.

We have tried hard to manage our scarce resources to balance our books and pay down the outstanding debt, but for the short term we will need some financial help in form of a low interest emergency loan from the state of Michigan.

The escalating cost of health care and the State mandated cap on health care spending forced the administration to take a hard look at past practices and insurance policies and come up with an innovative plan that keeps the premiums in check while maintaining the same coverage to its employees and retirees.

Had the city not taken these steps to upgrade the medical insurance plan the way it did, with the projected increase in health care costs, we could have come to a point that the city could have not afforded to provide the promised benefits to its employees and retirees.

The lawsuit from the flooding event of several years ago was settled last year and we are in process of paying the settlement during the current year. We expect a full payment to the plaintiffs–Hamtramck residents whose basements flooded just like yours and mine did–by the end of December 2012. (By the way, we have taken the first step in the costly process of updating our inadequate infrastructure with a planning grant that will help us determine the most efficient and cost effective fix to this decades-long problem.)

This lawsuit by Hamtramck residents and others that we have faced have had a negative impact on our liability insurance premiums and we had hard time finding an underwriter to renew for this year, forcing us to take on more risk and increase our deductible to a high level in order to keep the upfront premium low. …

Despite of all these challenges, there is a ray of light at the end of the tunnel:

We have settled all the major union contracts and are working to restructure contract with our other vendors.

We have applied and expect to receive a SAFER grant for the next two years that will keep our fire department in place and provide the level of service that our citizens expect and deserve.

By paying down one of the major loans that was obtained by the former emergency financial manager back in 2002, we are going to get some relief when it comes to debt payments. We also lowered the interest on the other outstanding bond.

We are applying for a low-interest state loan to provide a cash-flow cushion.

And finally, we have put together a deficit elimination plan that will allow us to pave our way over the next few years to the goal of a balanced budget.

Taking these steps has not been easy, as you know. It has been a contentious process that has tried everyone’s nerves and shaken the foundations of the city administration. It has meant many trips to Lansing and conversations with the State Treasurer’s Office. And it’s a testament to the commitment of our Finance Director that we have come to a point where we can begin to see a way out–a painful, uncertain, and long-term process, to be sure, and one with many moving parts–we don’t know what will happen with the American Axle facility, or what to expect next from GM.

We don’t know if Wayne County will shut down our jail when its new one is completed. We don’t know what the final status of the Emergency Manager law will be. We don’t know what the final outcome will be of the state legislature’s determination to do away with personal property tax on businesses. We don’t know what to expect from the national economy. We don’t know if we’ll receive the grants and loans for which we’ve applied.

Yes, there are many moving parts as we try to craft a fiscally viable, sustainable way forward for Hamtramck.
But of those many moving parts, let’s remember the most important of all–we, the residents of this Hamtramck. It is how we choose to act, how and how we choose to move forward together, that determines the future of this odd and dear little place. So many people tell me, “Hamtramck is changing.”

Nothing lives without change, everything living grows and evolves. And Hamtramck needs all of us to guide that change, to be those moving parts that move the city through difficult times toward the future we all want here for ourselves and those who come after us. …

… The work we have now ahead of us is among the most challenging, and most exciting, the city has ever faced. Challenging, because the financial pressures we are now under might be the end game in a less determined, less resourceful kind of place. Exciting, because it means that the Hamtramck that we are tasked with crafting can be a more creative, sustainable, and prosperous community.

Elected officials, department heads, union members, organizational leaders, community volunteers, young, old, newcomer, longtime resident …The city needs you, and it needs your neighbors.

You’ve heard about the many good programs the city is conducting and the good things we’ve been able to do. You also know the precariousness of our fiscal situation, and the threats to our stability. I know in Hamtramck we like to be a little crazy. That’s been a source of strength, and of uncertainty.

So let’s be crazy in a good way. Let’s be crazy dancers, crazy singers, musicians, and artists.

Let’s be crazy thinkers and dreamers. Let’s be crazy lovers of our homes and neighborhoods. And let’s try something else just crazy enough to work–let’s put our finances on solid ground, regularize our internal procedures, develop a culture of professionalism in city hall, while still bringing all our creativity and resourcefulness to bear to continue growing a diverse and welcoming community of strong neighborhoods, entrepreneurship, and urban living on a human scale. …

This is only possible if we–Hamtramck’s most essential moving parts–agree to move together, in the same direction, toward a common goal and with a common commitment to our collective good. Moving together, walking forward.

It may mean giving up some old ways of doing things. It will require trust in each other. It will require good will, cooperation, and a spirit of generosity. It will require humility, and courage, which go hand in hand in the best of us. …

So, I say to all of you, the days ahead will require most of all a belief in Hamtramck. …

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