Oxford Village officials conducted a work session meeting Aug. 23 to discuss the p-word – priorities.
It was held at the suggestion of Interim Village Manager Evan Teich, who’s contracted to be here through Nov. 3.
“I think it’s very important that we create (a list of) what we believe are the top priorities for me in the next couple months, and the staff, so that we can all be on the same page to get those accomplished and get some of that groundwork laid for the new staff that will be coming aboard, the new manager and the new clerk/treasurer,” he said.
The village has still not filled either position.
Participating in this work session were village President Sue Bossardet, council members Erik Dolan, Maureen Helmuth and Dave Bailey, Acting Police Chief Mike Solwold, DPW Supt. Don Brantley, attorney Bob Davis and Glenn Pape, the new director of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA).
The meeting lasted about an hour-and-a-half in the village’s community room and covered a wide range of topics.
Understandably, the village budget was a big concern. Council wants to know what the current status of the budget is and going forward, they want the process for formulating future budgets, and even the documents themselves, simplified.
“I think before we can conduct any business, we need to know exactly what the budget is, exactly where it stands,” Dolan said.
“I would venture a guess that not one council member sitting here today has a complete understanding of where we stand financially, period,” he added. “I don’t think there’s anything more important than that at this moment.”
Teich agreed the budget needs to be simple and easy to understand.
“You can have a budget that says you’re balanced, but if you don’t know how you got there and you don’t know what your priorities are in that budget, that’s not helpful,” he said.
Teich said the village needs to develop a budgeting process that’s “more inclusive and more educational than just numbers and a ream of papers.”
Davis noted he saw the 2017-18 budget and “I couldn’t figure it out.”
Teich noted it’s very important for the village to get its financials up to date, so officials know how much money is available and can make spending decisions based on knowledge, “not a guess.”
Davis stressed council needs to conduct meetings that are driven by a “well-organized agenda” and the public “deserves to see” this.
“They need to see a village council carrying out the business of the village in a concise and well-thought-out manner,” he said.
Council members were encouraged to contact the manager or attorney if they have questions or concerns prior to meetings.
They were also encouraged to talk to each other on a one-on-one basis. Davis noted council members are free to discuss things with each other outside of a public meeting without violating the state’s Open Meetings Act as long as it’s not done in such a way that a quorum of the council (at least three members) is reaching a consensus on an issue.
“You can talk before the meetings,” the attorney said. “You don’t have to wait until the meeting to figure out the agenda.”
Dolan noted there are “philosophical differences” between council members.
“We are a divided board. And that, I think, is a positive thing,” he said. “I don’t believe in rubber-stamping anything or silencing dissent.”
That being said, Dolan believes “there are issues where we need to have the ability to reach out to one another and find out where there is common ground in order to conduct a business-like meeting.”
“I, personally, believe that it has gotten better in the last several months,” he noted.
“It’s getting better,” added Davis.
The attorney noted “in no way” does he want his comments “to be perceived” that he believes in having a council where “everybody votes the same (way) on every issue.”
“I don’t like that, either,” Davis said.
Davis urged council to refrain from responding to citizens during the public comment portions of meetings.
Those are times set aside for the public to speak and council to listen. They are not meant to become a dialogue between the public and council, according to Davis.
Whenever council responds, Davis said it’s “never helpful.”
“It’s never fruitful. It never turns out well,” he said.
The “danger” of responding to public comments is council “can run afoul of the Open Meetings Act really quick,” Davis explained. If the public raises an issue and council then talks about it in response, “now, we’ve turned it into an agenda item that wasn’t posted.”
“It’s so hard (not to respond) because you want to either nip the issue (in the bud), answer the question or make it go away,” said Davis, but in a well-organized meeting, “you do not respond to public comments.”
“It happens everywhere. Don’t feel unique in this regard. This is not a Village of Oxford issue, believe me,” he added.
In Teich’s mind, the top priority is the Michigan Department of Transportation’s plan to reconstruct M-24 in 2019 and the significant impact this is going to have on the village.
“I cannot think right now of anything bigger that’s going to happen to this community in the next couple years than (the) M-24 (project) if it goes through,” he said. “They’re not just going curb to curb. They’re going sidewalk to sidewalk.”
Teich said the project is going to impact every single business along M-24 and that’s why everybody – the village, DDA, chamber of commerce, business community, residents and the state – “need to get on the same page” with regard to every aspect of it.
Teich warned if the village loses a half or even a third of its M-24 businesses because of the project, “you will spend the next decade trying to get those spaces filled.”
Officials agreed the village needs to ensure its liabilities with regard to employee pensions are being adequately funded.
“I know that we are under-funded and we need (to put) some plan in place to address that,” Bossardet said.
“It’s one of the biggest priorities as far as I’m concerned,” Dolan said.
Dolan suggested the village have a representative from the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (MERS) make a presentation to council explaining what the village’s current funding level is, where it needs to be and how to get there.
Davis told officials “you’re not the only community who’s a little low” when it comes to funding MERS.
“Almost everyone is,” Dolan added.
Village staffing levels and potential needs were discussed.
With regard to the front office, Helmuth believes a bookkeeper needs to be hired, staff members need to receive more education/training and the village needs to “seriously look at the incredible wage discrepancies” that exist between employees.
Teich is going to evaluate the front office staffing situation and report back to council with his assessment.
The interim manager noted the people who work in the front office are very important because they “take in almost every dime that this village bills or receives, if not all of it” and they’re the ones who deal directly with the public, from residents to business owners.
“They need to know that when they come to the counter, there’s someone there to help them who knows what they’re doing,” he said.
Solwold hopes to get his department’s staffing levels back to where they were about nine years ago. He believes the agency should have five full-time officers, including the chief. Right now, there are three full-time cops, including him.
He’s been supplementing the lack of full-timers with part-time officers, but that isn’t a permanent solution to him.
He said once younger part-time officers get trained, they typically leave for full-time positions with other agencies and that creates a “revolving door” situation that makes it hard to maintain consistency.
“That’s our biggest hurdle that we’re facing right now,” Solwold said.
When it comes to older, retired officers working as part-timers, Solwold said there are limitations such as them not wanting to work midnight shifts and that doesn’t help, either.
“We have to run this ship all year long, all day long,” the acting chief said.
Ideally, Solwold would like to have every shift covered by full-time officers.
“Part-time (officers) should be used to cover vacations, (or) if somebody calls in sick or maybe even as a second car (on the road),” he explained.
Brantley was the one who raised the issue of ordinance enforcement. In his view, it’s been lacking for a while and if the village wants to have healthy property values and a good standard of living, that needs to change and there needs to be compliance with local ordinances.
“For a long time, we’ve tried to get a consistent voice on ordinance compliance coming out of the (village) office, and we’ve had some inconsistencies,” Davis explained. “We’ve had too many people trying to answer the same question in different ways.”
When it comes to ordinance enforcement, Davis said there needs to be “continuity and consistency in the approach” and the message that “regardless of who or where you are,” the ordinances will be applied “in the same way.”
Dolan believes the village has been too lenient when it comes to violations. When he reads the reports, he sees the same complaints regarding the same properties, but no resolution. To him, people should be given a warning and if they don’t comply, they get a ticket.
“If we don’t have any bite, no one is ever going to (follow) the ordinance,” he said.
Dolan believes the policy of giving an “infinite number” of warnings needs to end.
“We’re a friendly community, but we’re a friendly community with standards,” he said. “I think you can be both.”