Court, Fire and Police Give their Sides in Budget Talks
By, Crystal A. Proxmire
At a special budget meeting on Monday, March 29, 2010 the city council heard presentations from the court, fire and police departments about how they propose to reduce costs for the coming fiscal year (2011).
District Court Judge Joseph Longo presented his requested budget for the year with the understanding that the City would have to make cuts where they found appropriate.
“The court is in a delicate situation in that we collect revenue for the City. My organization does the work to get the city there. We need people in the right positions to collect the income, and if we pull too many people from those positions we won’t be able to collect any money,” Longo said.
“My union has not yet met with the city labor attorney. I don’t know what those talks will bring to the table but I hope those talks will bring us closer to what the city expects. The reality is I will give you the best court on the budget that the city is able to give. Things are probably going to change. We may be in a position where some services won’t be as fast. We may have to close for lunch instead of staggering. But we’ll make it.”
Mayor Covey pointed out that Judge Longo hasn’t had a raise in nine years. The Judge’s salary is paid for by the state.
Members of council asked Longo to clarify some of the services that are state-mandated, and what services the court provides that are not necessarily required.
“The Constitutional minimum is that we must have preliminary exams, we have to have misdemeanor trials and 60% have to be done within 77 days of first court appearance. If we went to a bare minimum Constitutional court we would only have to do felony cases. Revenue would stop. We would still need a court administrator and clerks,” Longo said.
The services that Ferndale’s court offers above the minimum include a probation department, the ability to hear civil cases and the handling of parking tickets. “There is no Constitutional right to probation. We could just put peopled in jail or fine them. But we find that probation helps solve recidivism in a lot of cases,” he said.
Longo further addressed the parking ticket issue. “One recommendation by the City Manager is to take the parking revenue and give it to the DDA (Downtown Development Authority),” he said, referring to fines that currently go into the court’s building fund. “It takes it from being a court function and makes it a civil matter. When people don’t pay their parking ticket we can go after them. We have fees. If you take 2009 as an example, we took in $209,000 in gross revenue, and left 78,000 for the city. If the DDA were to do that collection we could have lost $57,000 because the DDA cannot collect the same fees as we do. It would seem to me that walking away from $57,000 doesn’t make sense to me when the council can easily allocate money from the general fund for a parking deck if they want.”
Councilman Scott Galloway inquired about the possibility of merging the Ferndale court with one in Hazel Park or Madison Heights, which is the same district. Longo said “Consolidating courts was explored 12 years ago, but the numbers don’t actually decrease. Whatever city doesn’t host the court ends up having more police costs for prisoner transport – two officers going to another city. Rotating judges means police have to go on different days. Changes at the state level are required to make changes to how those cases are assigned.” Longo also said that Ferndale in on a different, more efficient computer system that the other two courts, and that it would be expensive for the other two courts to upgrade theirs. He said that another legal restraint is that if a city has a court, all criminal cases must be held in the city where the crime took place.
Galloway asked about the possibility of sending some of our cases to be handled in circuit court in Pontiac, to which Longo replied that the court in Pontiac is trying to have more arraignments done here, and that there is nothing he knows of that he could pawn off on them.
One concern that Longo brought up was that the State is currently considering legislation that takes $5 out of every ticket written at the local level and uses it to pay for State Police. “Tickets bring in $2.5 million in revenue. Half a million goes right to the State of Michigan,” he said. “If you’re talking 5,000 tickets that’s another $25,000 that goes out of your pocket to the State.”
The council did not make any formal budget decisions, and will take Longo’s presentation into consideration as they try to eliminate approximately $3 million from next year’s budget.
The Ferndale Fire Department faces cuts, topped with news of declining income from contracts with neighboring communities. The Department currently gets $479,002 from Royal Oak Township and $424,705 from Pleasant Ridge. Pleasant Ridge has asked the renegotiate with the city for a lower fee, and Fire Chief Roger Schmidt expects that Royal Oak Township is going to do the same. The Fire Board will be meeting with leaders from Pleasant Ridge next week to discuss a compromise that Council will ultimately vote on. This reduction in fees, if any, will further deepen the budget deficit the City faces.
After years of trimming the budget, Schmidt says that only 3% of the Department’s budget is discretionary. He was able to cut 1.5%, which is far short of the 20% reduction that City Council asked for.
Although the department can find no alternatives but to accept personnel reductions, pending union negotiations, there is long-term hope that mergers with neighboring departments into a regional Fire Authority will help to reduce overall costs. “The problem is that to set up an authority costs money up front that we may not have, and that Hazel Park certainly does not have,” Schmidt said. Schmidt has been discussing a merger with Hazel Park, but believes that the only solution is to pass a milage to pay for the upfront costs.
Council members inquired about the possibility of sharing services without a regional restructuring, but because of the differences in operations, including different shift schedules, Schmidt says that for little more work a regional authority could be established. “You’re spending a lot of time and energy for a little reward, when you could be putting it toward mass consolidation. Hazel Park is adamant they don’t have any money to go towards this. I think with the right effort we could accelerate it to have in 1-2 years.”
The city can contract with an outside firm for $40,000 to plan the consolidation effort. “We have to think long range. If this could end up saving money and saving jobs for our firefighters I have no problem investing money in this,” said Mayor Craig Covey.
Councilperson Kate Baker said she looks forward to an area-wide department. She said to the Chief, “I was pleasantly surprised at your optimism. We’ve had many conversations at the staff level and I’m pleased to see it move forward.”
Another idea that was discussed was the possibility of eliminating ambulance service, or contracting that out. Schmidt said that the service brings in nearly $300,000 to the department, and is something that he feels proud to offer residents.
As it stands the Department may loose 9 firefighters and 1 half-time clerk position. No decisions were made at the meeting, and council is taking the information into consideration as they prepare the budget.
Ferndale Police Chief Kitchen began his presentation by talking about Animal Control Services, which are expected to be cut from the 2011 budget to save the city $118,000 a year. Currently the department has a full-time animal control officer who also provides service to Hazel Park, which was helping to offset the costs. However Hazel Park has decided not to renew their contract and will no longer be offering any animal control to residents.
Last year Animal Control Officer John Waller responded to 719 runs. The bulk of his runs are dogs, feral cats etc. If he doesn’t remove the animal, he gives residents advice for how to handle it. He assists on dog bite cases, removes dead animals, and maintains the animal shelter, which is located at the DPW yard.
“We view him as a critical resource and his mission as a critical one,” Kitchen said.
Councilperson Piana pointed out that 719 runs per year is 1.96 runs per day, at a cost of about $150 per animal. She inquired if those services might be contracted out for less money, which is unknown.
Council did not make any decisions about animal control, but will likely look at alternatives to the service.
Kitchen proceeded to outline his money-saving plans for the Police, which cut down the City Manager’s Suggested cuts of $1,280,688.00 to $542,819.00. He accomplished this in a couple of ways.
To begin with Kitchen, along with Captain Timothy Collins and others on staff, went line by line of their basic spending and reduced costs by $41,500 with basic things like uniforms, office supplies, travel and training, prisoner maintenance, and events. They were able to cut $20,000 from the prisoner maintenance budget, for example, by switching from restaurant food to microwave meals, and changing their blanket laundering services.
He then proposed that the department take on a dedicated traffic enforcement program that would raise an estimated $325,000. This would mean assigning patrol officers to write traffic tickets in order to increase revenue. They also hope to start a motor carrier enforcement detail. This would give officers the training and ability to ticket truckers coming through the city with unsafe vehicles, inaccurate logs, over overweight trucks. If Act 181 of the state motor vehicle code is adopted, it will allow 70% of ticket revenue to stay in the city.
The retirement of a traffic control officer will be adding $120,000 back to the budget. The office will be replaced by a juvenile detective currently in the department.
Kitchen also proposed that the department be allowed to tap into drug forfeiture funds that they have been accumulating over the years. He proposed that $250,000 of the $435,000 accumulated total be put into the general fund, then reallocated for overtime for specific officers. Drug forfeiture monies can only legally be used for specific police expenses, including overtime.
He then went position by position to explain the priority of funding with that money. First they would fund a DEA (Drug Enforcement Authority) Task Force Officer, because they are the source of most drug forfeiture funds. This would take $100,000 of those funds.
Next would be a NET officer (Narcotics Enforcement Team), because it is one of the few that can be funded with drug forfeiture money. This would be $100,000. Other positions include a school resource officer that is half funded by the Ferndale School District, three patrol officers and three service aids that operate the 911 system. And whatever money is left would be applied towards the salary of the records clerk.
“These changes bring the difference to $542,819.00, which can be met with more enforcement, use of the general fund balance, potential concessions by employees and reducing the remaining police,” Kitchen said. “We’ve cut everything we can and we’ve identified revenue generation.”
He said that school crossing guards must still be funded as required by the state, at a cost of $37,296. The budget also calls for the evidence clerk to go from 30 hours a week to 20, the cost of which is $6,242.40. “It will be tough to maintain it to the pristine status he has it now, but we are trying to do more with less.”
Mayor Covey also inquired about the cost of overtime to officers covering the Downtown area on the weekend nights. The extra downtown patrols cost the department $70,000 a year. Covey said that it might be worthwhile to ask the DDA (Downtown Development Authority) to use some of their increasing revenue towards funding the overtime.
“I though the presentations were very good and concise. The residents appear to be adamant about the police and fire departments staying intact and that is a goal I would also like to see happen,” said Councilperson Lennon.
Mayor Covey was also pleased with the presentations. “Both our Chiefs are trying to help us figure out how to best maintain services and still cut costs. I was pleasantly surprised to learn the FPD had a bank of over $400,000 in drug forfeiture funds and that they can be used for police overtime. I'm glad we learned of that pot of money and that should help in the short term in reducing possible layoffs in police and fire staffing levels"
No decisions were made at the meeting. All presentation materials are available online at the city website http://www.ferndale-mi.com.