Wednesday, June 1, 2011


They run from January to April 2010 and I wrote them for EMPLOYEES POSITIVE VOICES but they were spot on with some predictions and  shows it's not the unions fault but our leaders elected and appointed

Who Busted the City Budget and How do We Fix It?
By Rick Tormala JANUARY 2010 EPV

As I write this article just before Christmas 2009, the City of Grand Rapids is drowning in a sea of red ink with massive job cuts planned for close to 100 city employees including a devastating elimination of 26 police officers and 10 firefighters placing the security and safety of our neighborhoods at risk.

This is a scaled down version of the budget scenario originally proposed by rookie City Manager Greg Sundstrom on November 10th of this year when he announced 125 jobs would be cut by the end of the hard working employees, and requiring residents to pay between $25 and $48 a year to pay for street lights in front of their homes. Yeah, that will happen!

To paraphrase Mayor Heartwell, Greg and the City Commission already blew Sundstrom’s proposal to raise over $400,000 a year by reducing the City’s personal tax exemption from $750 to $650 costing taxpayers less than a couple dollars a year by not realizing Commissioners needed a 45 day waiting period to pass the ordinance by Jan. 1st.

Mayor Heartwell feared citizens’ reaction if he called a special weekend Commission meeting to meet the required timetable. Thus his poor judgment and leadership, along with city staff’s and our leaders ignorance of their own process cost us $200,000 in the final months of this fiscal year.

Citizens would have understood the emergency measure. Your Honor have some faith in the judgment and common sense of our citizens. Imagine the number of jobs that money could have saved.

If all of this confuses you it is typical City Hall math, moving targets hard to pin down when it comes to budget matters. I’ve broken it down as clear as I can with the information available.

Why didn’t the Manager and Commission see this coming? They had to if they really were on top of things. A $24 to $27 million dollar hole doesn’t suddenly appear. Imagine if Greg had announced this the week before the election instead of one week after.  

JJ might have won in a landslide being the only Commissioner to vote against structurally flawed budgets still filled with bloated bureaucracies and sacred cows.

I dare say, if this had been announced in April there may have been multiple candidates running in each Ward for City Commissioner and James Jendrasiak might have been the only incumbent re-elected.

How did we get here?

A terrible economy, falling income and property taxes, a dysfunctional state government stealing millions of our rightful revenue sharing dollars, but City Leaders and Management had a role in our own budget woes by not cutting spending in the right places and prioritizing correctly. It wasn’t the fault of our employees and their wages and benefits. They were unfairly scapegoated by former City Manager Kurt Kimball. Kurt negotiated the contracts and the City
Commission approved them. Then they turned around and unfairly put the blame on our employees. These same employees that helped the City reduce health care costs by millions and recently gave concessions like everyone else.

Fortunately, or unfortunately for some, everything a City Commissioner says in public is recorded as a matter of public record.  About 2004 at a budget meeting I offered to help put on the ballot an income tax increase and promised to campaign for it if 3 of the 5 assistant city mangers(they were paid from $112,000 to $102,000 each not counting benefits), the Office of Our Families (or as it was known then the Office of Children, Youth, and Families) and other unneeded administrators were eliminated and if the firefighters were given daily staffing levels of 57, police officers increased, all of the swimming pools kept open, money to street repair preserved, and if the funding for seniors, veterans, Arbor Circle, Catherine’s Care, neighbor associations and other vital funding in GLR was protected.

My suggestion was met by thundering silence.

We did protect GLR(General Local Revenue), but the year after I left the City Commission it was devastated by cuts and eventually eliminated tossing out the City’s commitment to social equity and making their triple bottom line for sustainability a cruel joke. I knew if they couldn’t manage less than ½ of 1 % of our General Fund for our most vulnerable citizens we were in trouble. Yet according to the City Comptroller they spent $301,650 that fiscal year on the
office of Our Families!

Several years ago I successfully pushed for the creation of a Citizen’s Budget Committee to review and recommend changes to our budget. They were largely ignored because they took on sacred cows and the Manager’s top heavy middle and upper levels of management. Commissioner Jendrasiak and I both opposed the hiring of multiclient state and federal lobbyists at the combined annual cost of $150,000 out of the General Fund(Now they have reduced it to $130,000 a year).
We have great Congressional staff and elected officials to represent us and on the state level if legislators can’t do it let’s get rid of them. This is a colossal waste of money.

At least one former member of the City Commission and a current Member who voted for the paying of tax money to the lobbyists both received PAC contributions from the state firm we hired to their campaign funds. Even if legal, it is hardly ethical and raises the odor of corruption that has polluted government at all levels.

There was a time when the city spent $66,000 and more for lunches
alone. I pushed it down to $29,000 by the time I left but it should disappear completely. There should be no free lunches on the taxpayer’s dime. Over the last ten years we have spent over a million dollars on the office of Our Families, over $100,000 on the Sister Cities program , around $366,820 for our share of a Customer Service Desk (Can’t every department answer their own phone for customer service?) and thousands on Commissioner and Mayoral junkets as well as hundreds of thousands in wasted consultant fees and memberships.

This explains where we are now and how we got here. We must fund our needs not our wants and get back to the basic services that make our city a great place to live, work, and raise a family.

Our new City Manager Greg Sundstrom is a good man, as is Kurt Kimball, but they have skewered priorities unfortunately rubber stamped at times by City Commissioners.

I applaud Greg’s seeking public input but when he starts wanting people to mow our parks, enforce housing codes and basically volunteer to be unpaid yet taxed city workers he looks out of touch with reality.

Robotically droning out at meetings with the public ... THE CITY IS LIKE AN I-PHONE PLATFORM... WE OWN THE PARKS....WE OWN THE LAWN MOWERS... WE NEED I-PHONE APPS... He sounded more like an electronic droid squawking gibberish on an unknown planet, than an experienced administrator. We need his creativity and years of experience, not BS and buzz words. We have been governed by those for too long. He is the Chief Executive not some technocratic R2D2.

Greg you also can’t cry poverty and then hire an $81,000 a year Assistant to the City Manager no matter how nice he is. IT DOESN’T COMPUTE!!!

How do we fix this problem?

Sacrifice starting from the top. The Mayor surrenders his automobile and the Manager turns down his $700 monthly car allowance. They along with the Commission and every city employee making over $100,000 a year take an immediate voluntary pay cut of 10%. That would be real servant leadership and start to restore credibility.

Slaughter the Office of Our Families, Sister Cities, and all other sacred cows. Freeze all taxpayer funded travel for the Mayor, Manager, and Commission as well as others. Get down to zero based budgeting where every job and program must be proven essential to the core services of the city or eliminated. Vote on every line item so the public knows the truth.  Get rid of unnecessary bureaucrats. I hate to see anyone lose their job and the more they make the harder it will be to find a job in this economy, but face the facts we are the City of Grand Rapids not a tax funded employment agency.

Quit paying around $89,000 a year to the DID! No other governmental entity does.  Have the DDA pay $1 million a year to fund police and fire services. It was a good start with $500,000 this year and I applaud Eric DeLong for putting it in the budget. JJ and I pushed that for years. Lease the parking system to a private entity(except the City County one which is a cash cow for the General Fund) while maintaining control of the parking prices, keeping them affordable and parking spots available. We might net enough income to wipe out the deficit and even have a surplus. It will save us expenses and raise annual tax revenues.

Then if your budget is clean and lean and we still need money place a tax proposal before our citizens for a vote. They love this City but you can’t threaten them with hurt, you just have to tell them the truth. Citizens want transparency, truth and efficiency and should get it from all of their elected and appointed officials.
George Welch built Richmond Park pool during the Great Depression. Our parks once had Halloween parties with costume competitions serving cider and donuts and ice skating in the winter. Our streets were fixed, plowed and salted. The best economic development incentives are good schools, great police and fire protection, recreational opportunities and beautiful parks, vibrant neighborhoods, efficient governmental services, available, safe, and affordable mass transit and a strong infrastructure. We had it all once. We have some of it now. We can have it all again.

Citizens let’s unite and demand real leadership and vision. Leaders on all levels need to get to work helping or get out of the way. Voters are not going to accept anything less any longer. We will build a great city, county, state and nation!!

Let’s hope for a Happy New Year with us all working together to make
our community better.

No comments:

Post a Comment