City looking for 'pearls' from public meetings

December 14, 2009
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Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom was glad he held nine community budget meetings with residents, community leaders, business owners and the religious community because he was able to successfully communicate the city’s dire financial condition to the 500 or so who attended.

“I was also pleased with the general positive and cooperative spirit of wanting to help us brainstorm. In fact, we are currently in the process of sorting through and evaluating those ideas, and I’m confident that there will be at least a few that will rise up to something that we can suggest for implementation,” he said.

Sundstrom held the meetings over a three-week period from Nov. 13 to Dec. 3 because the city’s general operating fund is facing a $27.4 million deficit for the coming fiscal year that begins July 1. The current budget has a $9 million shortfall halfway through the fiscal year.

“My staff and the city commission all thought it important that we have these meetings, but maybe the number of nine meetings seemed a little excessive. And I reminded them that sometimes you have to open 100 oysters to find one pearl,” he said.

“That’s what I think we did. We heard literally hundreds of suggestions. I don’t have a count yet, but I won’t be surprised if it’s 1,000 or more. If there’s only a couple of good ideas, I’d still think it was wildly successful.

“You can count on citizens to have a strong perspective, and our citizens were very positive. I didn’t do a count, but I wouldn’t doubt that by a 4-to-1 or a 5-to-1 margin, people said, ‘Let me know how I can help.’ And, you know, that’s all I can ask for.”

Some suggestions took a populist approach by calling for an elimination of management positions and a cutting of workers’ pay — efforts that already have been and are being taken.

Others were for actions the city can’t legally do without changes at the state level, such as taxing hotel stays and tickets to entertainment and sporting events. State law restricts the city to collecting only income and property taxes.

“I can’t fault them for making a suggestion that isn’t currently legal or workable. I have no problem with those suggestions,” said Sundstrom.

Another suggestion was to collect trash every other week instead of every week, and put those savings toward police salaries. Sundstrom said that was an example of a wonderful suggestion that showed that a resident was willing to make a sacrifice of personal service without receiving anything in return for the overall betterment of all city residents.

The city, though, can’t do that because state law says it can’t shift revenue it collects for one service, like refuse collection, and apply it to another.

“It would be a significant saving,” said Sundstrom of moving to biweekly trash pickup. “But what I can’t do under state law is use that money for any other purpose other than in the refuse world. I can’t use it to hire firefighters or police officers.

“I sense some frustration with citizens about that kind of thinking. And, again, I don’t fault them for making the suggestion. I think it’s a wonderful one. It’s just that we can’t do that under the law.”

The city also can’t arbitrarily raise prices for refuse bags and tags because state law prohibits it from collecting more revenue from those sales than the items cost the city.

“The city has to operate at break-even or a loss. We’re not allowed to make money,” said Sundstrom.

In a few weeks, 109 city employees will be out of work. Originally 125 were to be laid off from their jobs by Dec. 31. But the city received a federal grant that covered nine police officers, reducing the layoff number to 116. Seven more city employees will have their layoff notices delayed probably until March, as the city is in the process of privatizing those jobs.

Those seven employees work for Parking Services as booth attendants. The parking department, however, has shifted to an automated system and there isn’t a need for their services. So the city is looking to the private sector for part-time booth attendants who would work when there is an event at Van Andel Arena or DeVos Place. The city is taking bids until Jan. 4.

“We were hoping to have the service privatized by Jan. 1, but we will not. We think now it will be in March when we’ll have it privatized. Then those employees will be laid off,” said Sundstrom.

The city is also hoping to sell the Government Center parking ramp to Parking Services in April for $12.2 million. A sale should add $1 million annually to the city’s general fund for at least 14 years. The parking department would assume a yearly debt service of $1.25 million for 14 years and have a $900,000 payment for the ramp in the 15th and final year.

The total cost to Parking Services for purchasing the ramp beneath Calder Plaza has been pegged at $16.7 million, which includes interest payments.

After Sundstrom and his staff review suggestions from citizens, budget meetings with city commissioners will get under way after the holidays and will include discussions of some of the suggestions. Then the budgeting will begin.

“Staff will begin the actual budget process now where we will take the parameters of the reorganization, of the layoffs, of the new understanding of our revenues, and staff will be charged with producing budgets,” said Sundstrom.

“Traditionally, those budgets are delivered to the commission in April. I hope to do that earlier so the commission will have an expanded opportunity to review departmental budgets and approve a budget prior to June 30th. So staff now is focused on really a more micro level, whereas our work until now has been more on a macro level.”

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