Wayne explores cost saving moves after tax plan fails

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

These days, Wayne Mayor Susan Rowe finds it difficult to discuss her city’s future.

Since voters this week rejected a proposal that would have helped fund the community’s public safety services, city officials face tough decisions as they grapple with a $1.5 million deficit and revenue issues.

That’s why the City Council is exploring money-saving moves to avoid disaster and the mayor plans to send the state a formal request for an emergency financial review. But as of Friday, it’s uncertain if Wayne can resolve the problem or risks oversight.

“There is no magic untapped source or department that we can just immediately shut down and save all that money,” Rowe said.

City administrators are considering various options to address the situation, which Wayne’s plan to join the South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority was intended to help resolve.

The body was created when homeowners in Eastpointe and Hazel Park last year approved a 20-year, 14-mill property tax to cover the cost of fire and rescue services. The measure to join — which Wayne voters turned down by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin — would have cost average homeowners another $365 to $400 per year, generating nearly $5 million to hire police and firefighters while freeing up revenue for other city services.

Rowe has said the question cannot be put before voters again in November.

The proposal’s defeat prompted a special city council meeting Thursday night to examine ways to offset the loss in a community that has shed more than 100 employees and experienced other cuts since 2009.

Throughout a lengthy, spirited debate, council members discussed many possible cost-cutting measures, including layoffs, closing a community center and selling city properties. But after disagreeing about the feasibility and impacts, the panel voted only to ask the city manager to explore ways to hold fewer elections.

A timetable to finalize a decision has not yet been set; further discussions are likely at the next city council meetings, Rowe said. Meanwhile, the city awaits word on a state review.

“We still can pay our bills, so we will keep paying them,” the mayor said Friday. “Eventually we will run out of money. ... It’s very disheartening.”

Al Haidous, a county commissioner and the city’s former mayor, said while he served the city made many changes to live within its means. He said he’s willing to work with the city on a plan that will help it cut costs, but said added taxes will “drive the people out of their home.”

The ballot proposal, he said, was “excessive” for a community that can’t afford it and he did not support it.

“Where do we go from here? That’s the issue now,” said Haidous, D-Wayne. “It’s our city, our community, our vital services. Let’s get with our local government ... form a committee and see where we go from there.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Fire Chief Michael Reddy urged the council to consider how dropping more firefighters might affect response time or other factors in the city.

“I don’t want to see the fire department get cut any more than it has,” he told the group and a packed audience at city hall.

The six-square-mile municipality with an estimated 17,500 residents has 12 full-time firefighters and about 20 police officers; about $6.9 million is drawn from the city’s general fund each year to pay for the services, Rowe said.

Police Chief Alan Maciag estimated the force is half the level it was in 2008, spurring longer work shifts and restructuring how some cases are handled. Overtime has also climbed while staff morale falls, he added.

Fearing what could happen if not enough public safety officials were available in emergencies, several council members vowed not to cut their ranks. “We owe them a debt of gratitude and we need to do whatever can to make sure we secure the staffing,” Councilman Christopher Sanders said.

But to ensure that, the council emphasized they must seek other ways to compensate and tackle the deficit.

“We need to cut 1.5 million,” Rowe said. “That is a given.”

The situation frustrated residents who attended the meeting Thursday.

Vern Amos, alongtime resident who rejected the ballot measure, said he and others in Wayne support its public safety but weren’t willing to pay more in taxes. Still, he acknowledged the staffing levels remain “at the bone” and the city needs help.

“I honestly hope we can come together and save our city without an emergency manager,” he said.

But to resident Shannon Coffey, the city’s struggles underscore the need for better oversight.

“They need to fire people and start all over,” she said.

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.