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As Detroit faces cuts, council pads own budget

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As Detroit faces cuts, council pads own budget

Leaders planning 4-percent increase

January 27, 2005

BY MARISOL BELLO

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Faced with a budget crisis that threatens to send Detroit into state receivership, the City Council says it is prepared to slash spending in every city department.

TO BE HEARD

The main number for the City Council is 313-224-3443.

Source: City of Detroit

But one budget remains untouched -- its own.

At the same time Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick says the city must cut salaries and shed workers to help save more than $231 million, the council is seeking a 4-percent increase in its $17-million budget.

In its preliminary budget for the coming 2005-06 fiscal year, the council's head administrator says the increase is due to higher pensions and health care costs.

The request is nothing new for the nine-member legislative body, which has the final word on the city's budget. Since 2000, the council has upped its general fund budget by 48 percent -- more than any other city department.

All eyes are on Detroit and its elected leaders as they struggle to bail the city out of its fiscal crisis. State officials are weighing whether to allow the city to impose more taxes, while city workers worry about who will be laid off next and residents wonder how the city will continue to provide even the most basic services.

The council's budget has increased as its members have doled out generous pay raises to their staffs, increasing salaries by as much as 60 percent. During the same time, city workers had eked out 0- to 2-percent annual pay increases in their contracts. In addition, the council increased its number of budgeted full-time employees on the city's payroll to 108 from 92. Salaries and benefits make up almost three quarters of the council's current budget.

"That's a lot of money," said Joe Valenti, president of Teamsters Local 214, which represents about 800 city workers, 30 of whom will be laid off in the latest round of cuts announced recently by Kilpatrick. "What is the justification for all those people on the staff?"

Council members and their staff defend the increases. They say that as a check and balance to the mayor's administration, they need researchers, analysts and lawyers.

Council President Pro Tem Kenneth Cockrel Jr. said that while the council's budget has increased, its $17-million makes up only 1 percent of the city's total $1.6-billion general fund budget.

"That's like a mosquito on the back of a tyrannosaurus rex," Cockrel said.

Other members argue that the council has returned almost $12 million in unspent money to the general fund in the last five years.

"Look at how much money we've returned; the council is not overspending," said Councilwoman Sharon McPhail, who is a mayoral candidate.

Administration officials say that if the council is returning, on average, more than $2 million a year, it is a sign that their budget should be modified. The additional money, they say, could be diverted to other departments that need it.

The budget office has recommended cuts to the council's budget that council members have routinely ignored.

Since the era of the late Coleman Young, mayors have tried unsuccessfully to convince the council to rein in its budget. The body has not cut its budget since the city's last fiscal crisis in 1993, when Young chastised the council for increasing its budget. That year, the council requested an 8-percent increase and three new positions.

The council's staffing and spending habits came under scrutiny even before Kilpatrick announced his drastic budget reductions earlier this month. In November, it was disclosed that Councilman Alonzo Bates is under federal investigation for allegedly paying an aide $38,000 while she was in New York.

Bates further caused a stir when he went on a radio talk show and said: "What I did is standard procedure of all the folks down there," apparently referring to the City Council. Bates refused requests to discuss the allegations or the council's budget for this report. In a statement, he said he has done nothing illegal.

At the time, Council President Maryann Mahaffey said council members operate their budgets on an honor system.

Recently, still more questions were raised about the council's staffing after WDIV-TV (Channel 4) reported that Mahaffey allowed the 14 members of the late Councilwoman Kay Everett's staff to remain until the end of the fiscal year, June 30, doing work for other council members. Everett died on Thanksgiving.

Mahaffey, who under the city's charter is responsible for all of the council's administrative duties, could not be reached for comment. The Free Press tried to discuss the council's budget with her for a week. The day after she said she would provide answers, she went on a two-week sick leave for shoulder surgery.

The staffing issues illustrate how the council members oversee their individual $732,000 office budgets with little to no oversight. Those budgets include salaries and benefits for the council members. Each member decides the size of his or her staff, sets their salaries and raises, and decides whether staffers are full or part time. The members can hire an employee to be on the city's payroll, with full pension and health care benefits, or under a contract, which offers no benefits.

As a result, the number of employees in each council member's office varies widely, from seven to 14 or more. Salaries and pay raises also run the gamut because they are at the discretion of each member.

City payroll records show that between 2003 and 2004, Bates gave one of his administrative assistants, Andrea Perry, a 30-percent raise, the biggest of any staffer on the council's payroll that year. Perry's salary increased from $37,400 to $48,600 -- even though her job classification remained the same. Other staffers made huge salary gains when they changed jobs. Between 2002 and 2003, Councilwoman Alberta Tinsley-Talabi gave her policy analyst, George Stanton, a 60-percent raise when she promoted him to chief of staff. The next year, she dropped his salary from $84,000 to $74,000.

"He's a valuable member of my office," Tinsley-Talabi said recently. She said Stanton had not received any significant raise for the two years prior to 2003.

The biggest salary winners have been the five cameramen who tape the council's daily sessions that air every night on cable television. Over the last three years, their salaries jumped 53 percent, from $30,000 to $45,900.

Kathie Dones-Carson, the former council research and analysis director who supervised the cameramen and gave them the increases, said the raises reflected the low pay they had been receiving.

During last spring's budget session, Tinsley-Talabi suggested big cuts to the council's budget in light of the growing fiscal crisis. She was met with silence from her colleagues, who instead increased their budget by another 3 percent.

During that discussion, Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins suggested the council cut the mayor's budget and increase theirs so they could update their video equipment. Other members nixed the idea, but among the requests in the council's preliminary budget for 2005-06 is $225,000 for new cameras.

David Whitaker, the acting research and analysis director, said some of the equipment is more than 15 years old and needs to be replaced. He said he is talking with the city's Cable Commission about borrowing its equipment so as not to spend additional money.

Other increases in the council's budget and staff are the result of federal cuts. As federal grants have dried up, the city's general fund has had to pick up the costs.

For example, the budget for the City Planning Commission, the division that advises the council on economic development, doubled in the last five years because it lost $900,000 in federal grants that paid for seven staffers, which taxpayers will now have to supplement.

As the budget season gets under way for the 2005-06 fiscal year, which begins July 1, council members say this current crisis will force them to look critically at their budget.

"Reviewing these numbers is a clear indication that the council, as a body, needs to spend more time reviewing the specific elements of the budget," said Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel. "Absolutely, in light of the city's fiscal crisis, we need to make more careful and well thought-out decisions."

Contact MARISOL BELLO at 313-222-6678 or bello@freepress.com. Free Press data analyst Victoria Turk contributed to this report.

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Oh my! This city cannot operate like this. The city council has the final say in all the city department's budgets, but they cannot even control their own budget! It always amazes me how ineffective city council is. What have they done to help out the city's residents?

As bad as it would look to the rest of the state and the rest of the country, I think a state takeover is the best thing for the city right now. It's obvious that city leaders don't care to fix the problems on their own. The whole city government needs to be restructured, but I don't think that will ever happen. At least not under this leadership....

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