Public vote not necessary for increase
By BETH ALTENA
A millage increase proposed by the Rockford City Council will cost a homeowner of a $183,056 home $15.25 per month and will allow the city to perform infrastructure improvements that have been delayed.
Rockford’s Monday, May 8 regular city council began with Interim Chief Dave Jones describing a very busy weekend before a lengthy discussion of road, sewer and water projects that are badly overdue.
The Rockford Department of Public Safety responded to the River Chase Lift System where a dump truck with 25 yards of bark mulch was unloading when a shift in the mulch caused the truck to tip over on its side “inches from our lift station,” said Jones. The vehicle did hit the power transformers, cutting off electricity to customers there.
“Jamie (Davies) and his crew responded and first had to move the 25 yards of bark mulch before dealing with the tipped over truck and the transformers.”
On Saturday night two houses on Oak Street were fully involved in fire, requiring the Department to respond to the fire, calling in assistance from Plainfield, Algoma and Courtland fire departments. Jones said there was significant damage, but thankfully, no loss of life. He said the cause of the fire is known, but the origin is not known.
He spoke about the new restaurant, Green Well Gastro Pub, which has been remodeling the old Red’s restaurant space in the Promenade. “They are having a new soft opening this Thursday, and put a lot into the space.” He said anyone who was in Red’s before will be surprised by the interior. “It doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a new, modern industrial design. It’s very attractive in there.”
A resident of Glen View Court said she spends a lot of time on the trails up there and suggested the City install a trash recepticle. She has been picking up trash on the trail and has filled three large Hefty bags with garbage. She said people also pick up after their dogs with poop bags but then throw the poop bags into the trees where she can’t reach them.
Additionally, a street light by her house has been malfunctioning and she has called the city about it several times. “It’s on for three minutes, then it’s off for three minutes.”
Cliff Hill of North Creek Court spoke about walkability as a metric by which urban planners measure communities. “Cannon Township is installing sidewalks from Kies to Courtland to Rockford and the plan is an eight foot wide and concrete, that is a sidewalktrail on steroids.” He said residents of Cannon enjoy the benefit of safe walking and strolling while Rockford residents do not have this luxury.
Al Pratt, from the Rockford Area Historical Museum, said the museum has great programs and exhibits, but the real life blood is the facility’s volunteers. He said the second graders that go through the museum are attentive and interested. “As always, most of that is due to the volunteers.” He said the organization is always looking for more volunteers as the museum is open seven days a week. “Even the commitment of a few hours a month would be a tremendous help.”
Ken Phillips agreed with Mr. Hill about the walkability of sidewalks and said he thought that was part of the City’s Master Plan. “Also, what’s up with the search for a new city manager.”
Mayor Steve Jazwiec said many steps toward finding a new manager have been taken, including a stakeholders meeting with residents and city council. There is a draft to the Michigan Municipal League and a recruiting advertisement should be out by May 12 and will run for four weeks. “Then council can begin to narrow down applicants.”
The Consent Agenda met with no comments and the opening of the Public Hearing on an increase in the millage rate began with a presentation by Chief Jones.
“A year ago we had a work session on a lot of significant projects we couldn’t addresss based on a three year study on an Infrastructure Asset Management Plan, alongside engineers’ study of the water and sewer line.” With that was a study of Rockford’s roads.
“The three of them have to be inclusive,” Jones described. “If you see a road crumbling and failing and spend tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands, then two years later have to tear up the road to replace a water or sewer line
Jones said there have been several meetings with council and work sessions to discuss issues of the sewer and water, budget and road issues. “Last week we had a final projected budget over four years and what it would take to complete that plan.”
“How did we get to where we are today?”
“We are in a strong financial position, we’ve implemented significant cost savings over the past five years. We’ve consolidated to the Department of Public Safety, reduced staff by twenty five percent, even as recently as two weeks ago with the retirement of Chief Reus, we are absorbing that into our budget and not replacing him. We share staff with the North Kent Sewer Authority, we seek revenue streams like the cell phone towers and seeking grant opportunities.”
He said the City looks for ways to partner in supporting D.A.R.E., created a hybrid pension system, sought grants for the replacement of breathing apparatus that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, more efficiency with healthcare costs. He said even in small ways, like switching downtown lights to an LED system, which saved the city $14,000 in six months.
Jones said revenue sharing with the State of Michigan changed in 2002. “We couldn’t imagine we would see money back from the state like we always have,: he said. Over the years the City has lost $1.8 million since the state cut revenue sharing to municipalities. “All that time we’ve been falling behind on projects.”
He showed a pie chart showing where the tax dollars from City of Rockford residents goes, with 27 percent going to the City, the rest elsewhere. The City has a millage cap at 14 mills, the same as 1978. He said the millage rate for the City has varied over the years, such as in the 1990s when the economy was very prosperous.
In 2002 when the state began withholding shared revenue, the City Manager decided to hold the millage at the same rate while working on ways to cut spending. Jones referred to a bar graph comparing Rockford with other communities.
“Even with an increase of two mills to 12.9 we are still lower than every other community in our area.” He explained that every year council is tasked with setting a budget. “Built into our city charter the council can raise or lower mills by fifteen percent, this is for flexibility.” He said the Hadlee Act in 1987 set the cap for millage rates at 14 mills.
“We don’t know what it was before that. There are no records. It may have been a full fifteen mills.”
A two mills increase would set the rate at 12.9 mills, or $183 per year for a home valued at $188,056. This will fund road construction and repair. He said this does not affect the City’s fundbalance, which is a safety net held in reserve so the city will never face a lack of funds to operate in the case of a financial catastrophe.
“We will never get into a predicament where we won’t have money to operate the city, that’s important.” He said city operating expenses have stayed flat over the years. The majority of this (millage increase) is for infrastructure. Our debt stays flat, our dept service doesn’t change.”
He said 76 percent of the city’s income is from taxes. The largest line item on the City’s budget is public safety, at 39 percent, which is typically a significant portion of a city budget, up to 45 to 50 percent.
Examples of necessary upgrades for the city is replacement of a generator, with the City’s dating to 1976 (41 years old). “This has been cut from the budget every year for at least ten years,” Jones said. He said the machine is so old, they have had to have someone make a part for replacement before.
“Think about some disaster. If we are without power, we can’t help anyone. We are the Civic Center.”
He said he would like to add a couple of solar powered speed signs, which really make a difference in driver’s speed. He said budget for Safety is $1.5 million, down from seven years ago when it was $1.7.
Jones said the budget process has been tough on Department of Public Service, when every needed item has been cut. “It’s disheartening.” He provided a chart of the responsibilities of DPS (below right).
Jones wrapped up his presentation with some comments about water and sewer charges, noting that those funds are known as Enterprise Funds, which cannot be comingled with tax dollars. The meeting was then opened up to public comments.
John Strauss, a resident of Spring Street, commented that the City was doing a lot without a replacement manager. “It’s been over a year, it seems like a long time, then to do this. Two mills is a lot. I’m frustrated we don’t have a professional manager in place.”
Tammy Bergstrom, former councilwoman, wanted to know if there was an opportunity for residents to see the details and was told there will be another public hearing on May 22. Additionally, the details are available at City Hall. Jones clarified that this is a ten year plan.