Thompson: Inkster fights to survive
Officials in Inkster, with its population of 25,000, of which 18,000 are African-Americans, and recently drawn into the national spotlight following the incident of police brutality against Floyd Dent, are looking to an optimistic future in tackling the myriad challenges the city faces.
The city entered a costly settlement with Dent, a black autoworker, that forced a tax hike on its residents.
Though the problems of the city mirror similar challenges faced by urban cities across the nation, Inkster officials say they are now finding creative ways to turn things around to keep residents from moving out, and build a diversified tax base in the wake of the dissolution of its financially troubled school system two years ago.
The state found that massive debt rendered the Inkster school district not viable. Its students now attend neighboring school districts in Taylor, Romulus and Westland, among others.
“Why would anyone want to move into a city with no school district? The dissolution of the school system broke up a community that was already broken,” Mayor Hilliard Hampton said. “The dissolution was the ultimate death that will have a long grieving process.”
Hampton said the city — plagued by unemployment, economic development challenges and crime — needs to attract new residents as its population shrinks.
“We need to start attracting other residents. While I’m concerned about current residents, I am more focused on long-term attraction of new residents,” Hampton said. “But it seems to me that nobody cares about Inkster but Inkster, including the state. There needs to be a personal interest on the state level to help Inkster build capacity. We need a hand up, not a hand down.”
Mark Stuhldreher, the city treasurer and interim city manager, said a lack of financial resources is the biggest challenge for Inkster with its annual budget of about $20 million.
“This, of course, has created significant challenges in our ability to provide even the most basic of resources,” Stuhldreher said.
“The majority of the resources are devoted to public safety (police and fire). After that, significant resources have been devoted to eliminating the accumulated deficit, and more recently, an increasing percentage of resources are being devoted to community and economic development as we turn our attention to growing the tax base.”
Stuhldreher said though key city projects like parks and recreation, rubbish, water and sewerage as well as the city’s general fund have all experienced a deficit, the city’s accumulated deficit has decreased since 2012, when it was $3.5 million, to $840,000 last year.
Stuhldreher said the current fiscal year is still being reviewed because the audit is not complete, “but we budgeted to produce a positive fund balance of $100,000. We expect to meet, if not exceed, that target.”
Inkster, since 2012 has been under a consent agreement with the state as a financially distressed city. Though the city has not been placed under emergency management, as was the case with Detroit, Hampton wants more than just a consent agreement with the state including helping the city find ways to generate revenue as well as restoring revenue sharing.
“We need to restore revenue sharing to reflect service demands. Also, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. should make it a priority for cities that have entered consent agreements as part of that process not only to look at our books for financial gain, but also create a parallel track into economic stimulus for our cities,” Hampton said. “You can’t have a vibrant or sustainable community if you have 30 percent of your housing stock federally subsidized.”
The city conducted a comprehensive report last year called “Reinventing Inkster,” a blueprint for economic development.
“It offers some strategies on redevelopment of downtown Inkster and the commercial corridors,” Hampton said. “We are continuing to aggressively demolish dilapidated structures in the city, and we are poised to restart the Annapolis Point and Stratford Place back online for residential housing.”
Facing challenges of economic revitalization including efforts to keep residents from leaving the city, Inkster, in June of this year, agreed to tax its residents 6.45 mills to pay $1.4 million for the misconduct of former police officer William Melendez, the culprit in the Dent case. For example that settlement means that property owners in Inkster with homes worth $55,000 paid out about $180 in their July tax bill and those with houses worth $40,000 doled out about $130.
Video of the officer choking Dent, a Detroit autoworker, during a traffic stop in January caught the nation’s attention as another example of overbearing law enforcement in urban cities.
However, the fallout from the Dent case was swift, with then-Police Chief Vicki Yost offering her resignation. The city recruited William T. Riley from Selma, Alabama, to become the top cop in Inkster to run a department with 23 officers.
“The Dent situation has damaged the public trust toward the police department,” Riley said. “My major goal is to create an atmosphere that fosters open communication between police and the community. It is paramount that we change the dialogue as it pertains to public safety. We must see the glass as half full.”
Riley said prior to his arrival there was an uptick in aggravated assaults and now there has also been an increase in incidents of breaking and entering.
“Residents want to see more police in their neighborhoods. They know we have to get the city budget back in a position to make it happen,” Riley said. “I remind them that it will take all of us working together to make it happen.”
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.