By Tom Travis
The Flint City Council adopted a $73 million budget Tuesday after a five hour meeting with a 6-3 vote. Councilpersons Eric Mays (1st Ward), Jerri Winfrey-Carter (5th Ward) and Council President Monica Galloway (7th Ward) voted against adopting the budget.
After a seven-hour Special City Council meeting Monday night that failed to adopt the budget the meeting was recessed and the council reconvened Tuesday night at 5:30 p.m. June 2. The budget can be viewed here on the city’s website.
Nearly $32 million of the $73 million budget will be used for legacy costs (city employee pension and pensioner health coverage costs). And the city’s reserve fund will dwindle to $6.3 million from last year’s $24 million.
In a phone interview, Dr. Eric Scorsone, the city’s financial advisor, stated that the legacy costs account for 80% of the changes in the 2020/2021 budget. Scorsone added that if you take out the legacy costs the budget is pretty much “unchanged” when compared to the previous year’s budget.
Legacy costs a problem for municipalities across the country
An interactive map can be found on the Mackinac Center for Public Policy website that provides information about pension debt costs in municipalities across Michigan. According to The Mackinac Center’s website the largest municipalities in Michigan account for a combined $5.5 billion in pension debt.
Nine budget amendments considered by council
Tuesday night’s meeting lasted from 5:30 p.m. until after 10 p.m. In that meeting council considered and voted on nine different budget resolutions.
Those nine resolutions totaled over $5.2 million, all brought forward by Councilperson Mays (1st Ward). In Monday’s meeting Scorsone said that the city would have to lay off employees to meet the demands of Mays’ nine budget amendments.
The council did not pass an amendment to fund the Hasselbring and Brennan Senior/Community Centers for an additional $20,000 for each center. The vote was 6 no, 3 yes. Councilperson Eric Mays (1st Ward) said that Hasselbring Center, located in the 1st ward, was in “dire” need of a new roof and hoped to use those extra funds for its repair. Funding for Hasselbring and Brennan Senior/Community Centers in last year’s budget was $10,000 for each center. Funding was not included for the centers in the 2020/2021 budget.
Among key aspects of the budget considered by the council in its deliberations Tuesday were funding to fight blight, the cost of street lighting, waste pickup, and funding the Ombudsperson’s office established by the city’s newest Charter.
Flint continues the fight against blight
Mays (1st Ward) put forward an amended motion increasing the amount for blight control from $600,000 to $900,000. Councilperson and Finance Committee Chair Kate Fields responded to that amended motion, “Mr. Mays is trying to bankrupt the city.”
She further stated, “I would support this in the future but not now.”
Councilperson Herb Winfrey (6th Ward) chimed in by asking his colleagues “to not minimize each other. I don’t believe any of my council colleagues want to try to bankrupt our city.”
Both Mays’ blight amendment for $900,000 and the original amendment for $600,000 were voted down in a 6-3 vote.
In discussion about the blight amendment, Councilperson Allan Griggs (8th Ward) asked Amanda Trujillo, City’s Chief Financial Officer and City Treasurer, what was the estimated property tax revenue for the city. Trujillo stated that the city’s revenue from property tax was $4.9 million.
Council debates street lighting and the cost of waste pick up
The council approved a resolution for street lighting operation, maintenance, updates and improvements to be collected through property taxes. The cost to property owners, per parcel, will be $100.22. This is reduction from last year’s cost which was $109.
Director of Planning and Development Suzanne Wilcox said that as changes in street lighting to the new LED fixtures a reduction in city expense will be assessed. The cost to the residents will decrease. Wilcox stated that “it’s a slow process but there will be reductions.”
Council votes to increase cost of waste pick up
The council passed a resolution to increase residential waste collection by nearly $40. Last years budget allotment for waste collection was $167.47. The resolution passed 9-0 Monday night will costs city’s property owners $206.94 per year. Based on 30,000 city properties that are assessed these costs the increase totals nearly $1.3 million.
Council person Jerri Winfrey-Carter (5th Ward) said that she would not be supporting this increase stating, “I will not tax my constituents on this increase for services. They’re not getting the services they’ve paid for, no!”
Office of the Ombudsperson is funded at $250,000
The council approved, as mandated by the city’s newest charter, $250,000 for The Office of the Ombudsperson. However legacy costs are being eliminated across the board in every department. For the Office of the Ombudsperson $58,000 will be deducted for legacy costs.
Dorsey said she “understands that we have a huge legacy cost in the city.” Dorsey added that what she doesn’t understand is the “substantial amount” that is coming out of her department’s budget.
Asked about the process she had to go through in defending her budget at the council meeting, along with the Ethics and Accountability Board (EAB) president Allen Gilbert, EAB vice president Joe King and other EAB board members, Dorsey said that it was “interesting” that she and the EAB had to actually do that since the Office of the Ombudsperson budget is mandated in the city’s charter.
“The problem that I have is that the Office of the Ombudsperson is the only budget that the charter specifically mandates. What would stop the city from saying ‘well we need $245,000 for the legacy costs’ and that would technically eliminate the office? “They would could say that they had budgeted the money but most of it went to legacy costs.”
“I will always be respectful of our city’s finances and where we are financially as a city.” My wish list is to have enough money to bring on my two staff as permanent employees and to add another staff to handle the Human Relations Commission complaints. And also to have the Office of the Ombudsperson located some where other than City Hall.
Dorsey said she understands that she and her staff can meet a resident about a complaint anywhere in the city, they do not have to come to City Hall. “We can be innovative about how to meet with residents,” she said.
“But I struggle with not having the staff to carry out the work,” she added. “And I struggle with the idea of things being set up to fail. I can’t allow that to happen. I’m going to do as much as I can. And we’ll get it done. I’m not going to allow these obstacles to interfere with with the office.”
56 open complaints in The Office of the Ombudsperson
Dorsey said her office has 56 open complaints in process right now. Most of the complaints deal with blight and waste pick up. Dorsey said she expected more water issue complaints. She added there have been added complaints due to residents finding it difficult getting in touch with City Hall caused by COVID-19 and the pandemic.
Dorsey and her two staff had just moved into their new basement office in City Hall when the pandemic began. They were in the process of unpacking and establishing their presence there.
Dorsey said getting the word out to the public that they are there is a challenge. At this point Dorsey said she is only able to use Facebook to advertise about the Ombudsperson’s office.
Ombudsperson wants to establish a Human Relations Commission
Dorsey said she believes many complaints could surface if a Human Relations Commission was established.
Dorsey said, “With the civil unrest in our country right now, these are the types of complaints a Human Relations Commission would tackle.”
Dorsey’s argument is that she needs staff to cover these complaints from a Human Relations Commission let alone complaints in other areas in the city.
Trying to anticipate over the next few months, Dorsey said, “We will follow the directions of the State and the City. We will return to our office when City Hall opens up again. The Office of the Ombudsperson staff will continue to wear masks, social distance and likely have a rotating schedule so that not all three staff members will be in the office at one time.”
EVM Assistant Editor and City Beat reporter Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.