In my favorite movie “Animal House,” John Belushi delivers a classic line: “Over? Nothing is over until we say it is. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no, and it ain’t over now!”
With the same level of determination and a lot more smarts, 700 members of AFSCME Local 2733 and members of six other smaller bargaining units gave back contract benefits totaling about $6.6 million to help reduce Washtenaw County’s projected 2010-11 budget deficit. I have lived in Ann Arbor 49 years and do not recall a similar circumstance. Were county services over? Were the jobs of up to 150 union members over? The Locals said “Hell, no.”
It was a big deal.
The big deal wasn’t the savings of $6.6 million. It was the commitment of more than 700 union members. They got involved and were part of the solution. Likely they will stay involved, taking an even greater interest in county government and providing a balancing oversight for future spending practices. These unions now have a dog in the hunt.
My grandfather knew something about dogs. On a hot summer night, he used to sit in his rickety rocker on a wooden porch in the foothills near Maggie Valley. I may have had a good day, or I may have had a bad day … but his response to the report of how my day went was always the same. “Sonny, just remember – the sun don’t shine on the same dawg’s ass every day.” So before I went to bed that night, everything was put back in a more balanced perspective: That day was neither a good day nor a bad day, and I slept a lot better because of his wisdom.
I think the sun might shine on the ass of the county unions’ dog in the not-too-distant future – hopefully to the tune of restoring the $6.6 million in wages that they gave up for the betterment of their members and the people of Washtenaw County.
Like the county, the city of Ann Arbor is also facing a financial deficit. Their director of labor relations, Robyn Wilkerson, is currently negotiating five contracts that have already expired. She reportedly stated that she is not completely sure of what that deficit might be. That’s not a good sign. If you don’t know where you are, it’s hard to negotiate you way to where you need to be.
Over the years, I have known all of the city administrators going back to Guy Larcom in the early 60s, and I’ve spent too many of those years auditing the financial accounts of the city. Administrators in many other cities have a very short shelf life – not much longer than an opened can of white albacore tuna. In recent years, the city has been fortunate to have the services of its current administrator, Roger Fraser.
The number of full-time city employees has been significantly reduced during his tenure. Roger believes that frequently work expands to fill the size of the workplace. The only way to gain efficiencies is to eliminate positions and see if the work goes away without impairing city operations.
The city’s finances are more complex than those of the county. The county takes in property taxes, fees and government subsidies, pays for recording/collection operations (via the clerk and treasurer), maintains county drains, staffs the sheriff’s department and operates the jail.
The city, on the other hand, has more separate funds and fiefdoms. And in the distant past, all of the Downtown Development Authority revenues were going into the city’s general fund to pay for police, fire, streets and sewers, parks, assessor, human resources, etc.
Now, the parking structure/lot revenues go to the DDA to pay for parking operations and for improvements downtown. Plus, the increase in property taxes within the DDA district –the “increment” in tax-increment financing (TIF) – goes to the DDA. To determine accurately the city’s projected financial deficit, the working capital and the projected revenue and expenses of all of the funds – including those of the DDA – need to be considered. I agree with Robyn at this point: I am not exactly sure of what the projected deficit number might be.
But as John Belushi said, “Nothing is over until we say it is.” So let’s hope that the city and its employees can also work together in solving what will be an increasingly difficult financial position over the next three years.
About the writer: Del Dunbar, a CPA and partner with Dunbar & Martel, has lived in Ann Arbor since the 1960s.