THIS IS THE LAST IN A SERIES OF ARTICLES BEING PRESENTED GIVING PEOPLE A HISTORY AND SNAPHOT OF WHY GRAND RAPIDS IS IN FISCAL TROUBLEThey run from January to April 2010 and I wrote them for EMPLOYEES POSITIVE VOICES but they were spot on with some predictions and show it's not the unions fault but our leaders elected and appointed. In this one I take the Manager and Commission to task for proposals and cuts out of touch with our citizens especially coming ONE WEEK after voters gave permission for the tax increase by a small margin. Greg, George, and Company did eventually see the light but only after the public roared. It is a warning for us to keep them honest, transparent and responsive to the citizens of Grand Rapids. Our leaders using common sense to form public policy would be helpful too.
GRAND RAPIDS STREET LIGHT TAX NOT A BRIGHT IDEA
BY RICK TORMALA EPV JUNE 2010
On Tuesday, May 4, 2010 the citizens of Grand Rapids went to the polls and by a slim margin approved taxing themselves increasing the city income tax rate in the name of public safety. No mandate, no you’re doing a wonderful job as fiscal stewards, no ringing endorsement of the way our elected and appointed officials are running our City. I believe the voters simply came to the conclusion Grand Rapids was no longer safe and we needed to increase our police and fire staffing levels.
Just one week later not only was the infamous street light utility tax a discussion topic at City Hall, but Manager Greg Sundstrom was threatening to shut down the six city pools and halt park maintenance. Good thing the voters weren’t aware of the parks department scheme, I mean proposal, or the results could have been different. How tone deaf to the concerns of our citizens are the people running Grand Rapids? To be fair the City Manager always had the street light tax on the table, because the Mayor and Commissioners never told him it was unacceptable, but closing pools is something most people didn’t expect, especially when they were casting their votes to help the city out.
I’m proud of the voters that approved the income tax increase. Their actions were unselfish and clear evidence of their willingness to sacrifice even in the midst of economic turmoil to help make our city a better place. But I also have deep respect for the voters turning out in opposition to the proposal. I know they too love our city and in large numbers sent a clear signal to City Hall also. Live within your means! Together their message is powerful and grounded in common sense. Sacrifice and live within your means. Listen up Mr. Manager and Commissioners, the people are making sense and showing you the way! Though maybe it’s a novel idea to our leaders?
Mayor Heartwell needs to really listen to the public before limiting himself and the Commission to only what he calls “repugnant” choices. A careful and transparent examination of the budget, a rational reordering of priorities, imaginative critical thinking and truly embracing our voters’ message of sacrifice and fiscal responsibility would give our leaders a number of reasonable alternatives to the obnoxious choices with which they now struggle.
If the Commissioners really don’t want to slap our taxpayers in the face and steal summer from our children there are other options. It only takes will and leadership to set Grand Rapids on the right track. Oh, but it also means the Commission must lead and the Manager implement their budget and priorities!
First an outline of the street light tax, though the Orwellian description of it is as a street lighting “fee,” our clever citizens understand its real purpose! It is quite the bureaucratic masterpiece. Bismarck would be proud! I can see consultants around the country salivating at selling this tax, I mean revenue enhancing tool, to desperate city councils throughout the land. Of course consultants are just city bureaucrats supplementing their fat pensions, but I digress.
I will save you the suffering of reading the actual ordinance language though it is available for masochists on the City website and I do applaud them for their transparency, but not for the legally obtuse language. However I’ll provide you with the straight talk translation. If you own property in Grand Rapids with an adjacent street light you will be charged money.
How much will depend on street footage and the type of neighborhood you live in, but the greater your frontage the higher your costs. It won’t be good for residents, businesses, non-profits, apartment complexes, or houses of worship. I guess it won’t be good for anyone except the tax collector again displaying the bureaucratic brilliance of the plan! To be fair it is expected to raise over $3 million annually for a city desperate for money, but to me the entire idea is misguided and unfair to taxpayers, especially when there are other alternatives. Maybe if we taxed those little light bulbs that appear over the heads of city bureaucrats when they get these bright ideas we would make a fortune, well on second thought probably not.
Touching on the absurdity of cutting parks department funds and closing pools, the Manager and Commissioners need to stop and really think about what helps us maintain a quality of life in this city. Many parents bought homes close to pools and parks with the intention of using them. So did many residents without children counting on them for recreational opportunities or relishing the pure joy of green space. You certainly don’t have to live near them to enjoy them. They’re the part of the soul of our neighborhoods.
Years ago parks were the jewels of Grand Rapids and an integral part of our community and were treated and financed as such. We learned to swim and play sports in them. During the winter we skated, not downtown, but at most parks throughout the city. Wherever we lived we could walk to one. Park caretakers were goodwill ambassadors and our guardians, many became neighborhood institutions. Ask anyone raised in Grand Rapids during the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and even the ’70s and I bet they can match a park with the name of its caretaker. Yet now a home-grown Manager is prepared to carry through on the dismantling of this once great system.
We can’t tolerate that any more than we could tolerate the cutting of our police officers and fire fighters. A city must be safe first of all to make it livable, but a city without a vibrant parks system is not a livable city. Think of what the Manager is proposing for our pools. I’ve seen it before, closed pools filled with rain water turned into million dollar bird baths. Also bear in mind these closed pools will have to be “opened” at least for a few days this summer to make sure things are running correctly even if our children will be barred from using them.
Now that I’ve highlighted our problems where are all the solutions? I thought you would never ask!
First let’s address the Mayor and Chamber of Commerce’s mantra of blaming the workers and calling for cutting wages and benefits as the solution to everything. Baloney! This city is in trouble because of how it is run, rather than how its employees are compensated. Understand I am willing to have a frank discussion regarding wages and benefits and support concessions when needed, but all this talk about pensions is going after low hanging fruit instead of using strategic thinking to address the costly and structural inefficiencies that are the real financial problems busting our budget.
Again I am not afraid to have a frank discussion over what is better — a defined benefit or a defined contribution plan. In fact we will have one in this paper, but it will be a fact based discussion of the truth and some may find it surprising.
When you hear the city pension plan being attacked and held up as outrageous who do they cite, our top paid managers. That is where the problem is and if we removed the unnecessary ones and watched how much we pay them things would change. The public doesn’t know how much is paid to match a number of managers’ pension contributions. Sometimes the City match is in double figures — far greater than what rank and file workers receive but that is an article for another day.
Back to possible solutions to the city budget woes.
Embrace sacrifice and living within your means. You know the drill — freeze all travel for Mayor, Manager, and Commissioners unless they are coming back with a check with at least six figures. Every penny counts is one of the things the electorate are demanding. Sell the Mayor’s car and take away Greg’s $700 a month car allowance. If you have to tax lights suck it up and sacrifice yourself, citizens have done enough. Let me applaud the elected officials’ pay cut — which I admire them for and is a case of leadership by example. They must understand it is only a start.
In a true spirit of truth and transparency place up on the city’s website in an understandable and clear fashion the contracts of all the appointed officials along with the money spent by the Mayor, Commissioners, and all top management over the last two years and currently with an explanation where, why, and how money is spent. As always I recommend voting on and examining publicly every position and expense the city has and eliminating the non-essential ones. Middle management and upper management must be thinned and people let go not demoted or renamed. No one is being fooled. Really if this Commission could prioritize needs over wants in our budget and order the Manager to implement sound fiscal policy a lot of the problem could be relieved.
Now finally a way to raise significant money, put bids out to lease and run our parking system except for the cash cow City/County operation below the government complex that feeds our general fund. You know this was suggested before and there were significant entities ready to bid, unlike the travesty of the so called “Mystery Project” that wasted thousands of tax payer dollars and ended up with no bidders, just embarrassment. The proposal was fought by the Parking Commission and city management and the City Commission lacked the will to proceed and because of their failure and inaction we have raised taxes.
But what was a good idea then is a great one today when the city is in the worst shape ever financially. To not fully explore a venture like this and instead choose increased taxes and devastating service cuts would be unconscionable and a failure by the Commission of their fiduciary responsibility to our citizens. Here is the policy question. Must the City run the parking system and why? The answer is the City must try and provide safe, affordable, and accessible parking for its citizens.
It also has a legitimate concern about where development takes place and has used its control of parking system property to manage and assist development. I have no quarrel with and support these elements of our parking policy, but none of that requires the City itself run the system or not lease out the property and dissolve most of the department. Last time it was brought up bureaucrats told us we would lose millions that we collect in revenue, but failed to mention all of that goes to run the system not to cover the general fund deficit.
Putting out bids we could write a proposal allowing a private entity to lease and operate most of our system, but bind them contractually to have the parking prices set by the City Commission. We could also insist if they built something on the properties they would have to maintain the same number of parking spots. For ramps we owe money on they would have to assume or pay off the debt and the surplus in the parking system would be turned over to us.
Even a take back clause and a penalty could be included. It might be possible to clear $25 million or more of profit from such a lease arrangement, plus the surplus, and the annual income from income tax and maybe even a payment in lieu of taxes from the leased property. With sound budgeting of needs we could fund priorities like police and fire staffing, parks, pools, planning, neighborhood services, and infrastructure. We could go back to the future and rebuild our parks making them neighborhood assets once again.
What I have outlined are not “repugnant” options but viable alternatives. If Commissioners Gutowski and Shaffer don’t want to tax our citizens any further here is their chance to put our City on sound financial footing. If Commissioners Bliss and Lumpkins want pools open they can join the push for a sane fiscal policy with creative opportunities. If the Mayor wants real sustainability this is his chance and if Greg Sundstrom doesn’t want to be known as the City Manager that presided over the financial destruction of Grand Rapids he’ll jump on board too! At least the topic should be thoroughly explored.
Urge our elected officials to park the Street Light Tax and turn the lights on to examine leasing our parking system and resizing our management structure. Otherwise we are back to repugnant choices where we all lose.