Fraser’s fiscal woes deal a lump of coal to seniors

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Fraser — They were down to their final hands.

Members of Fraser’s community center get in a last game of Euchre Thursday before the center shut amid cuts due to the city’s deficit.

About 40 cards players gathered one last time Thursday inside the city’s activity center for their regular Euchre matches and to share in a potluck lunch.

But it was not as joyous as it has been at past gatherings. That’s because the center and its activities, enjoyed by about 1,000 members, ended Thursday afternoon because of a budget deficit in the Fraser general fund and recent cuts approved by the City Council.

“The doors close later today,” said Christina Woods, Fraser’s recreation director. “... It’s been pretty tough. I’ve talked to most of them, and for many, this has been like a family.”

Woods said she will appeal the center’s closing next month before the City Council, but unless a reversal of fortune appears, Thursday was it for the building on Hidden Pine Drive.

“But at this point, people will have to find somewhere else for their recreation,” said Woods, who added her future and that of a full-time worker, a part-timer and a van driver have not been determined.

“This (center) is a lifeline for a lot of people. There is a 106-year-old woman who uses our van for a weekly trip to shop for groceries. I don’t know what she will do now. I don’t know what a lot of these people will do.”

Fraser, a 4-square-mile Macomb County community of 14,480 residents, finds itself at a crossroads these days. It is a little city wrestling with big-city problems. A major sewer line collapse and massive sink hole last Christmas Eve disrupted residents for nearly a year. A few weeks ago, two top city officials were canned amid allegations of sexual harassment by city workers.

Cutting Fraser’s activity center and senior services is expected to save the Macomb County city $170,000.

Faced with a $14 million budget and about $12 million in revenues, the budget knives came out.

In a money-saving effort, the City Council approved cuts, including a layoff of eight of its police officers, by a 5-1 vote, after a proposed 3-mill increase was turned down by voters last month. The millage would have raised $1.1 million a year.

And more cuts are expected, according to Wayne O’Neal, the city’s manager.

“We’re a train wreck,” O’Neal said. “But these cuts were predicted some time ago by other city managers if something wasn’t done.

“There is not enough revenue to support city services as enjoyed by residents, but it took a new City Council to understand the gravity of the situation, and there really is no other choice. This is not something you can ‘budget’ out of to resolve.

“And it’s going to get worse. I expect this place will be broke in 18 months and run out of cash.”

Some say the city’s financial woes are because officials failed to make tough choices when revenues couldn’t support Fraser’s needs. Other residents blame the city for not being aggressive enough in collecting taxes after the real estate market rebounded from the Great Recession.

Like other Michigan communities that find they are unable to submit a balanced budget to the state, that will likely mean state appointment of an emergency manager to oversee fiscal affairs.

In Pontiac in Oakland County, that meant a series of financial managers, the elimination of its police and fire departments, termination of all but essential city jobs, and the shutdown and selling off of tax dollar-draining city-owned properties such as activity centers and a golf course. The long-vacant Pontiac Silverdome, which cost $1 million a year to keep inflated and guarded, was sold at public auction for a fraction of what it cost to build.

Reducing Fraser’s 37-man police department to 29 sworn officers saved more than $600,000, O’Neal said. Shuttering the city’s activity center and discontinuing senior services — from card games and bingo to meditation and chair yoga sessions — is expected to save another $170,000. Activities for about 400 youth, primarily in the summer months, will also be discontinued.

The City Council decided response by police, fire and paramedics was a high priority and did not cut emergency dispatch services. And they drew the line — for now — at eliminating city-provided SMART bus services relied on by some non-driving seniors as their only transportation.

But that’s a small consolation for Brian Gorckau, a 35-year Fraser resident, who was taking his 95-year-old mother, Margaret, to her last bingo game at the center on Thursday.

“I take her to bingo every Thursday, about nine years now,” he said. “My mom has dementia, and it’s one of the only activities she enjoys. She really looks forward to it.

“... I think its absolutely ridiculous that Fraser can let it go like this.”

Gorckau noted he and his neighbors received a “ton of anti-millage mail” before it went to public vote and believed that “killed it.”

“People heard a lot things — probably not all true — about salaries and how there was money to pay for it, so they either voted against it or didn’t bother to vote,” he said.

The 3-mill proposal, which would have cost the average homeowner about $150 a year, was defeated by 57 percent of the voters.

Dorothy Hale, who lives in Clinton Township but purchases a non-resident membership to the recreation center, said the morning bingo regularly attracts 15 or more people and Euchre games, at least 30.

Despite the looming closure, she put on a cheery face and a Santa Claus hat, and when the last bingo ball was called out, chirped her goodbyes to others in the room wishing them a “Merry Christmas” as they filed out.

Ron Pressel, 82, a 50-year resident of Fraser, said he learned of the activity center from a friend while “mall walking” about three years ago.

“I’m going to miss the people, the friendships I made here,” Pressel said. “I’ve been coming every Thursday (for cards). I can’t help but feel this is not the end and somehow, someway, they are going to find a way to keep it open.”