By Rosemary K. Otzman
After two days of hearing what directors of all the departments want or need to survive in 2014, the Van Buren Township Board of Trustees decided last week that they were spending more than they’re bringing in and cuts had to be made.
But, what to cut?
The board set a work/study session at 4 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 6, to further discuss the proposed $14.1 million budget, which, under state law, has to be balanced and passed by the end of the year.
In an introductory message to the board as the sessions began on Oct. 16, Supervisor Linda Combs pointed out that in Wayne County, Sumpter Township is the only community less expensive to live in than Van Buren Township.
She said, according to SEMCOG figures, VBT is allocating $448 per resident for the services it provides, though receiving only $158 per resident in taxes.
For the last 12 years, the township has been using landfill revenues to balance its budget, but the landfill has only about 11.5 years to be in business “and revenues are continuing to drop faster than the costs we expend,” she said.
Combs said that:
• The Public Safety Millage provides only $3.34 million of the nearly $7.9 million in expenses. In 2014 almost $5 million must be supplemented;
• Parks and Recreation’s proposed 2014 budget, while understaffed, amounts to nearly $300,000 in expenses without a current millage; and
• The Senior Department budget is also understaffed with a 2014 budget over $230,000 without a current millage to support it.
“I could go on but, clearly, it is evident that significant planning and effort must occur to continue to provide essential services,” Supervisor Combs said.
On the final day of the budget discussions, Treasurer Sharry Budd orally gave some figures on the budget which confused the board and sent Trustee Brenda McClanahan up to a white board to write down the figures for all to see.
After putting down all the figures and doing the math with other members of the board helping, it turned out the budget needs roughly $1.3 million, but that doesn’t consider transfers from the landfill fund, which currently holds $4.3 million.
The board said it could just transfer over money from the landfill fund to cover the amount needed, but then there would be little in that fund, that currently brings in $3.225 million a year.
“Spending landfill funds for operation is not illegal,” said Trustee Jeff Jahr. “But it was meant to do capital improvements, cultural projects. We got into dipping into it for operations and now we are taking out more than is coming in.”
“Then you throw in the Visteon issue,” said Trustee Reggie Miller, referring to the bonds the township is obligated to pay when the income to pay them falls short in 2018.
“Visteon is different from the landfill…,” Clerk Leon Wright replied.
“We may want to use the landfill money for Visteon,” Trustee Miller said.
“Landfill money isn’t going to make a dent in the Visteon figures,” Supervisor Combs said, referring to an unpaid bond total of some $47 million.
“It’s an elephant in the room,” Miller insisted.
Trustee Jahr said all the requests from the directors are valid, but the board has to cut.
“What is the problem?” Trustee Phil Hart asked, answering himself with, “Nine percent is the problem right now. Could be we simply have a directive to cut 9%.”
“Benefits and health care. That’s the biggie,” Treasurer Budd said of the expenses.
Supervisor Combs stated, “You can’t cut your way out of this mess … We have to generate revenue.”
At the end of the budget sessions, board members said they will study the situation and send feedback and recommendations to the supervisor before the Nov. 6 meeting.
Among the statements at the two days of budget sessions:
• Combs: “Working with the Affordable Care Act … It’s been a nightmare.” Fire Chief Dan Besson said he cut back on the hours allowed for paid-per-call fire fighters because of the Act and then, when the President postponed that part of the Act, Besson kept the hourly cutbacks in place so he wouldn’t be going back and forth with the fire fighters. “I took money away from them for shifts because I have to accommodate the law.”
• Public Safety Director Greg Laurain called Fire Chief Besson “a valued asset to our agency” and recommended hiking Besson’s pay from $69,000 to $81,000. The board suggested the figure be $80,000, plus the $500 signing bonus all salaried department heads are getting for three years. The signing bonuses for salaried personnel was put in place by the three full-time elected officials without coming to the full board.
• Discussed the dispatch fee charged to the City of Belleville that has been $145,600 for the past two years, agreeing it should be increased. “We had upgrades and we should have more money,” said Police Lt. Ken Floro, who supervises the township’s dispatch department. Combs said last year, she and Budd sat down with the then public safety director who said the previous fee was adequate. Budd said she would like to see a schedule to see what the township should have had in fees. She said this won’t go to the board for amendments until December.
• Discussing the Belleville dispatch services led Jahr to ask, “Why don’t we consolidate more? It makes sense if we can provide mutual services.” Clerk Wright suggested consolidating police and fire with the city, adding, “We pretty much patrol Belleville as it is … cars on Liberty and High. Why hasn’t something like this ever been approached? … I know personalities are involved.” Lt. Floro said, “We help them a lot and in reverse they are there to help us, as well.” Public Safety Director Laurain said, “Consolidating the police and fire … the state likes that. Now they want you to collaborate with other agencies.” Budd said in years past the departments actually sat down together, but when they got to “Who’s going to be this … that … it fell apart.” Combs said, in all fairness, she had to report that Mayor Kerreen Conley asked within the last six months to sit down and talk about shared services and cooperative ventures that the communities could work together on, including Sumpter Township. Combs said Conley was busy with her children and so they have yet to meet.
• Supervisor Combs said she is studying a proposed contract with Romulus for Animal Control services, similar to what VBT has with the Humane Society, with VBT catching and transporting the dogs themselves, unless they are vicious. She said the township’s animal control officer does not have the ability to dart animals. Laurain said when the township gave over the license to the Department of Agriculture, it gave over the ability to dart. Combs said the Romulus rate is less than the Humane Society and Romulus will give VBT a key so animals can be dropped off at any time. Budd said even if the township said it wouldn’t have an animal control officer, the man doing the job now is a full-time employee and his pay will just move to another area. Combs added, “If we use Romulus, we qualify for state money … we’ll talk with them once their council election is over.”
• Clerk Wright proposed a full-time Human Resource position. The board also discussed paying for mileage and overnight stays for attendance at Michigan Township Association conferences, which Wright supports and Budd opposes. “I’m just looking at a budget that’s destitute,” Budd said. The board discussed going out for price quotes for a new township attorney to see if rates could be reduced. The attorney budget now is $270,000.
• When talking about the treasurer’s department, Wright said that while the township had frozen raises, Deputy Treasurer Sean Bellingham got a raise of $5,000. Budd explained when the new water department head was hired he wasn’t comfortable with budgets, so Bellingham was given a $5,000 stipend to do the water department books. Budd said Bellingham said he would give it back if it everyone was so much against it.
• In the assessor’s department, part-time clerk Pat Veerkamp is retiring at the end of the year, but they have asked her to stay on for two days a week to help guide the new person through the transition.
• Supervisor Combs said she would like to have an agreement with Romulus so VBT residents can use the athletic center at a reduced rate.
By Rosemary K. Otzman