Friday, October 24, 2008

Tough choices during budget talks

The Mayor and City Council have had several special meetings to talk about the 2009 budget. Because of the crisis in the economy we have experienced reductions in revenues from building permits, the real estate transfer tax, and a smaller reduction in our sales tax. These budget shortfalls have resulted in lower fund balances. To deal with a portion of these shortfalls in 2008 our city manager has cut some expenditures but has not reduced any service levels. Because of a large planned reserve in our fund balance, we will not be making any drastic changes to begin this next fiscal year. We must change however from our "business as usual" government practice if things do not get back to the good old days of growth in 2009. While I have been promoting change this past year, the Council consensus has been to wait and see how deep this down turn will be before making any changes in our current practice.

I have been pretty aggressive asking for a plan on cost cutting during 2009. Staff has cut costs up to this point that don't include personnel. I and a few other Council members have agreed not to go back to all our homeowners and increase their fees or taxes anymore over the next 6 months while we see which direction the economy is heading. Staff however has suggested we immediately increase fees and taxes so we don't have to cut personnel and services to our citizens. We need to take a good look at all of our alternatives to deal with this situation. I am a believer that a smaller local government is a must in this economic climate because of all the pressures that have been put on our citizens with skyrocketing costs and losses in savings. We are benefited by great past fiscal planning that affords us this time to evaluate how we respond to this new economic environment. But we must act soon to be a constructive force in the big picture.

The other cost issue that is haunting us is state mandated pensions that will rise substantially over the next year if equities continue to sustain large losses. While we are mandated by the state government to live by standards that the legislature have set for our pension funds, we have no control on the costs that we must levy our citizens through property taxes. I have called Representative Karen May and Senator Susan Garrett to asked them to work with us on discussing alternatives that would reduce the burden on our property owners. Senator Garrett reminded me that a pension reform package was just signed into law that deals with some pension issues state wide. I do commend her on this oversight legislation and applaud this first step, but much more needs to be done. I welcome a dialog and partnership with our State Legislators to prevent a double digit increase in our city government (pension) levy in 2010.

If you look on your real estate tax bills you will see the pensions as a separate item. The 2008 pension levy will be $2,284,446.00 and it is proposed to be $2,416,644.00 in 2009 (5.8 % or a 132,178.00 increase). This pension cost is about 20% of the entire city portion of your property tax bill. Projections for 2010 will have an additional $630,000 increase (based on a 10% reduction in investment return) and I believe will have a huge impact on our ability to properly fund our core city missions unless we substantial increase in property taxes. Folks, this will be beyond our ability to control because of present state legislation.

This is important! We need to ask Representative Karen May and Senator Garrett for assistance and to work with our municipalities to reduce these mandated pension fund requirements. Especially in these economic times, it is just not fair for our citizens to take this huge increase on their property tax bills. We all must share in the pain of our tightening economic situation which includes all municipal employees.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

City Hall Rain Garden Installed

At my urging, the City Council had staff install a demonstration Rain Garden on the Northwest corner of City Hall to show the benefits and beauty of sustainable storm water management. I know the City Council would like to see this practice institutionalized within our community.

During heavy rains when water can cause erosion and ponding, rain gardens provide natural water storage that reduce negative effects from a down pour or long periods of rain fall.

Another Rain Garden will be installed at the Northeast corner of City Hall to take storm water off the rear parking lot. Not only does this store water within the rain garden system but also provides filtering of these waters before they flow down our ravines and finally into Lake Michigan.

Funding for these projects are from state grants and our increasing funding from our sustainable initiatives fund. These fund revenues will be coming from our increased payments from recyclables and our new single hauler commercial waste contract. I have been following the direction of our City Manager that says we need to identify funding resources first, then spend the money second..... I AGREE...Done


Commercial Waste and Multi-Family Refuse and Recycling Franchise Agreement

Here is a link to our City Highlander Oct 15, 2008 Newsletter and the lead article on our New Commercial Waste Contract. Read it please.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Overdevelopment knocks on the door at Grange

The City Council was presented with an eight unit development on Park Ave. and Grange which at one time was the old Sparking Spring property. The underlining zoning on this property allows 5 single family housing units. This area is zoned R-3, one home per acre and borders the Southeast corner of Hybernia. The developer Brad Zenner had originally proposed a change of zoning for a 14 unit development last year that was rebuffed by the Plan Commission. This 8 unit plan passed the commission with a split 4-3 vote and did not have the support of the Grange neighborhood who said they would support an additional one unit for a total of a 6 unit development. I strongly agreed with the neighborhood because of several objectives that we recently reaffirmed in our master plan.

Under our ordinances we ask for a Planned Unit Development (PUD) when parcels are over 3 acres. The response to this law varies depending on whether the property is in a high density area or on a relatively large and/or isolated parcel in a residential lower density neighborhood. When these proposals are within an existing neighborhood and don't have the parcel size to create a buffer or proper transition from the neighborhood, they don't work. In this case on Grange any PUD development should resemble the character of the street while still incorporating the controls on bulk, environmental preservation, and best management practices of sustainable planning.

What also made this development interesting was the provisions for bonuses of affordable housing and historic preservation. While these are both priorities for our community, and all of us have agreed on a 6 unit (of which one is affordable) development, further bonuses should never negatively encroach on the overall character of our existing neighborhoods.

This proposal was tabled at the City Council meeting to allow Brad Zenner to think of less dense alternatives to his current proposal that might be acceptable to the Council and community.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Park District Withdraws Support for Lakefront Referendum

I am 100% behind our Park District Commissioners for expressing that now is not the time to increase the Park District levy about $67 per $100,000 market value. They have decided not to proceed with support of the Nov. 4th referendum. All of us in government, this community, and nation need to focus on retaining the economic viability we all have been comforted with over the last decade. To put anymore economic stress on our citizens or our economy would be wrong at this time.

The Park District of Highland Park sent out a press release last week. They are not supporting moving forward with the Lakefront Plan at this time. The commissioners said they would have preferred to remove the referendum question from the November general election ballot altogether, but since ballots have already been printed, that was not possible.

I had participated in the Lakefront Plan process with the public over the past several years. The JJR January 2007 plan was a much better representation of the consensus of the community meetings than finally became the Districts action plan that unfolded this last year. Many of us were surprised at the big push for a 124 slip marina at central avenue. Wow, as our community is working to become more sustainable and provide an example of renewable energy use, enhancement of our natural assets, and promote a lifestyle of reduction of our carbon footprint, is a power boat marina fit in? I don't think so...... We want people to enjoy the recreational use of Lake Michigan and should pursue teaching sustainable uses like sailing, swimming, and use of paddle crafts. These uses are quiet and add to the big picture strategy that our Mayor and community have pursued.

That being said, this lakefront planning process has come a long way and I applaud our Park District Commissioners for the great work that they have done in trying to provide resources and awareness on our lakefront. We need to continue this discussion over the next several months and rebuild our priorities on protecting our lakefront and creating opportunities for environmental enhancement and recreation.

Future plans should provide a longer timeline of implementation so we do not get a large increase in property taxes. Our first priority should be clean beaches, new restroom facilities, and enhanced opportunities for our citizens to enjoy a quality experience on the lakefront. MORE TO COME!!!!!