November’s ballot for Dearborn residents will ask them to vote on an increase in taxes, but not on whether the city can eliminate police and fire minimum staffing levels.
The latter two ballot proposals died on the council floor during Tuesday night’s meeting at after receiving only three votes of support. The measures needed five "yes" votes to make the ballot.
Council President Tom Tafelski, as well as members Mark Shooshanian and Robert Abraham voted for both measures, while council members David Bazzy and Brian O’Donnell voted against both. Council members Nancy Hubbard and Suzanne Sareini were absent from the vote.
Two millage measures passed unanimously with all but Sareini present.
The first would add 3.5 mills starting July 1, 2012, with a five-year sunset clause. The funds generated–estimated to be about $12.5 million per year based on current taxable values–would go into the general fund to be distributed to various city services.
The second would levy an additional mill specifically to fund library services. That mill would bring in about $3 million per year, while the current library budget is $4 million. But it would not, Councilman O’Donnell pointed out, mean that all branches of the library would remain open.
Additionally, four advisory questions will be on November’s ballot, all centering around asking residents what they consider to be “essential” city services worthy of city funding. The questions will focus on leaf-removal services, city pools, the Dearborn Public Library system and the .
Minimum Staffing Debated, Then Dies
The heaviest debate happened between members of council, as well as members of the public, fire unions and police unions, centered around the possibility of eliminating police and fire minimum staffing.
The ballot proposals suggested that in both cases, the staffing mandates would be suspended “when the cost for pensions and retiree health benefits in the preceding year exceeds 20 percent of payroll.”
Currently, the levels are 50 percent for police and 40 percent for fire. Ten years ago, Mayor Jack O’Reilly contended, both percentages were in the single digits.
Council member Abraham pointed out that although the police department has consistently employed 20-25 officers less than the charter mandate, the city still has to budget for the full 205–a cost of $11-15 million per year.
“It makes no sense to fund positions that you know well and good aren’t going to be used,” Abraham said. “We’re forced to earmark that fund and we can’t use it for anything else during that budget year.”
“I don’t want to have to close another library to fund 10 positions in the police department,” he added.
Both police and fire union representation came to the meeting to speak out against cutting minimum staffing–the fire union, with about 30 to 40 union members and supporters.
“Allow us to negotiate this,” Police Officers Association of Dearborn President Gregg Allgeier asked City Council. “We have a proposal in to the mayor … that addresses, among other things, minimum manning.”
Council members Bazzy and O’Donnell agreed that union negotiation is the best way to handle cutting costs, citing the fact that a union agreement to allow the city to budget for less staff could supersede the charter mandate.
Council President Tafelski was skeptical that an agreement with the union could be reached in a timely manner. Moreover, he said, a union agreement to budget for less staff would mean that residents would have no say in the matter.
“The public isn’t getting what they paid for,” Tafelski said.
He maintained–and the council agreed–that the bottom line is to keep response times for police and fire calls as fast as possible. How many officers and firefighters are on the street day to day “is more important to me than 120 or 205,” he said.
But Dearborn Firefighters Association Secretary Joe Murray said that having 120 fire department staff is absolutely necessary to maintain the level of service they provide–including an average response time of under four minutes.
“Any alteration of our manpower will not allow us to be there within that four-minute mark,” Murray said. “This 120 number is what we need to keep the city safe; what we need to keep people alive.”