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Cost of state’s $9M theft from HP: Street lights and water plant

HP water treatment plant   COURTESY PHOTOS

HP water treatment plant COURTESY PHOTOS

By T. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen

HIGHLAND PARK — Over the last decade, the state of Michigan withheld $8.9 million in revenue sharing funds from the city of Highland Park. The state used the money to balance its own budget, according to a recent Michigan Municipal League report.

Now Highland Park is fighting off the fourth state takeover in the last decade; struggling to provide basic city services; and currently amending a tightly stretched budget.

Highland Park officials say the $8.9 million the state took from them during the same period of time the city was under emergency management would have helped make life a little better for the city. Instead, loss of the revenue has compounded the city’s financial woes.

Councilmembers say street lights and the water plant could have been saved if the city received the money it was owed. City street lights were removed in 2010 under emergency management, leaving lights only at street corners and along Woodward Avenue.

“If those funds would have reached HP, we most certainly … would have maintained a totally different posture while negotiating with DTE about our street lighting debt,” said Councilman Rodney Patrick. “However, the state stood by and watched DTE cut our lights out because we had no leverage during negotiations.”

In 2013, the state ordered Mayor DeAndre Windom to close the city’s water plant and use Detroit water.

Council President Chris Woodard said the city could have fixed the valve at the water plant and kept revenues flowing. Now Detroit is charging Highland Park $80,000 to $100,000 a month, Woodard said, and has filed suit to collect the money. Highland Park is contesting the amount Detroit says is due.

However, the city of Highland Park is responsible for some of its water problems. When Windom took office two years ago, he fired everyone in the water plant leaving the city without meter readers and personnel to send out bills. As a result, some sections of the city have not received water bills since the mayor took office, other parts have received only annual bills totaling in the thousands of dollars, a burden for a cash-strapped population.

The state  — both in what funds it did not send to the city and in what city monies it spent while in control — has been “a part of our demise since beyond 2003,” Patrick said. “We are the model of why the state should keep their hands off (local government).”

The city’s current deficit is $1 million, the same amount of revenue sharing funds withheld from the city in 2013-2014 budget, according to the MML report.

Ironically, Patrick said, the state’s emergency managers added to the city’s drain of dollars. The first emergency financial manager, Ramona Pearson, was appointed in 2001. Pearson closed the city’s library, shut down the revenue-producing inspection department, using state employees for that function. The state has never allowed the city to resume its own inspection department or keep fees generated by inspections, including the new housing development and strip mall on the former Sears site.

In addition, Patrick says, there was a drain of at least $5 million that was spent on “qualified” consultants and “special” advisors by the first EFM. “I’m not sure what was so ‘special’ and made them so ‘qualified,’ because we are in worse shape now than we were in 2003,” he said.

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