A committee of Saline school board trustees, city council members and administrators will study a proposal to consolidate the school district’s Community Education department and city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Members of the Saline Area Schools Board of Education and Saline City Council met Monday at Saline City Hall to go over a shared service feasibility study conducted by Plante Moran. The city and school district commissioned the study after 2012 joint meeting, which also included representatives from the library and Saline Area Chamber of Commerce.
“This is historic in many ways. We’re having this joint meeting to talk about something profound,” Mayor Brian Marl said at the outset of the meeting. “We’re all on the same team. We want Saline to remain an outstanding place to live in and work in, and we want to maintain great schools, in hopes that our children receive a world class education.”
Board of Education President David Holden said the city and school district have a good relationship and can work together to help solve issues.
“We have mutual challenges – financial challenges. We owe it to ourselves and to our community to look at ways to work together,” Holden said. “We need to make the tax dollar holler. There’s a trend toward regionalism. Townships have become a bigger part of the district and at some point we may want to bring the townships into this process.”
After the joint meeting, the two boards came to a consensus that an ad hoc committee would:
· Investigate a functional or full consolidation of Community Education and Parks and Recreation.
· Reach out to neighboring communities, such as Pittsfield, York, Saline and Lodi townships to see if they are interested in partnering.
· Investigate whether CARES millage or Washtenaw County Recreation dollars can be used to assist funding a joint operation.
· Investigate if there are private operations suitable for partnership or management of the Rec Center or other services.
The Plante and Moran study looked at the feasibility of shared services in the areas of information technology, buildings, grounds and maintenance, and parks and recreation/community education. Scott Patton, a management consultant for Plante Moran, said merging information technology and buildings and grounds didn’t appear beneficial. But, he said, while Saline Rec Center and Saline Community Education do not overlap services, he said there are possible benefits to consolidating the entities. Patton called Saline Community Education one of the top programs of its kind in the state and also praised Rec Center programming. Patton noted the city’s general fund contributes about $150,000 a year to the Rec Center, a sum is unsustainable if the city keeps burning through a general fund that could fall to $100,000 by the end of fiscal year 2014.
Patton laid out three possibilities:
· Maintaining the status quo.
· Functional consolidation, which would combine customer interface functions but maintain separate management and separate programs, saving little money.
· Full consolidation, which would combine management, eliminate three full time employees, and save $200,000 annually.
“There’s nothing really wrong with the status quo. But at some point, the costs are going to catch up to you. If you tackle this proactively and don’t wait until it’s too late, it’s possible that instead of having two of the best programs in the state, you could have the best program in the state and one that serves as an interesting model,” Patton said.
Saline City Council member Dean Girbach asked Patton to break down how the city and school district would benefit from the $200,000 in savings.
“Who benefits more,” he asked?
Patton laughed and said he had to dodge the question.
“The answer is, the community,” Patton said. “That’s a detail that will need to be worked out in negotiations.”
Patton said these kinds of negotiations often breakdown on this question.
“Money can be saved, but if you’re saving more than me, I’m not interested,” Patton said, describing the mindset.
Communities Could Create Recreation Authority
If the city and school district choose a full consolidation, there are two options. The city and school district can enter into an intergovernmental agreement. Another option is to establish an authority, independent of the city and school district, which could then approach voters to fund the entity with a property tax levy.
School Board Trustee Todd Carter said he believes there will be pushback if a recreation authority goes to the voters for a millage.
“Government is not here to provide recreational opportunities unless private enterprise is unable to provide it,” Carter said. “Once you get the ball rolling (with an authority and talk of a millage), it’s hard to stop.”
Saline City Council member Lee Bourgoin said he thinks that citizens may get recreation tax fatigue if an authority tries for a millage.
“We already have a Washtenaw Recreation Department that has the authority to tax, and then we have the CARES millage…then we have the Metroparks tax. We have a lot of recreation taxes from various directions. Wouldn’t it be confusing?” Bourgoin asked. He suggested engaging the county for money to fund any ventures.
Holden said Bourgoin and Carter raised good points.
“My view is that an authority would be a reallocation of costs that would take the burden off the city and schools and let the public decide and have local control of what level of recreation resources they want to have in the community,” Holden said. “Recreational opportunity is vital for the community. It’s good for youth. And it’s good for middle aged people and seniors too. One of the reasons why Saline has the reputation it does is because it’s a great place to live.”
Holden recommended that area sports organizations, like Saline Area Soccer Association and Saline Area Youth Baseball and Softball become part of the solution.
School Board Trustee David Zimmer cautioned the two sides not to get too far into specifics so early in the process and then shifted the discussion to existing shared services in the Saline Area.
Existing Shared Services: Saline Fire & Saline Library
The Saline Area Fire District, for example, serves the City of Saline, Saline Township and parts of Lodi and Milan townships.
“The regional fire department is a great benefit to the City of Saline,” Mayor Marl said. “The City of Saline gets a Fire Department for $300,000 a year. If we had to pay that on our own, the cost would be much higher than $300,000 to receive the great service we enjoy.”
Another example is the Saline District Library. The library serves the same residents as the school district, covering the City of Saline and parts of Saline, Lodi, Pittsfield, York, Freedom and Bridgewater townships. In 2006, voters in the communities passed a 20-year millage to support the library.
The city’s Parks and Recreation department has an annual budget of $1.7 million a year. It’s supported by membership dues, class fees and a contribution from the city’s general fund that varies. Last year, it was close to $150,000. The Rec Center has 2,600 members and had 5,755 participants last year. Parks and Recreation has six full time employees, plus part time help, temporary help and volunteers.
Community Education, on the other hand, actually makes money for Saline Area Schools. Revenues exceeded costs by $270,000 in 2011. Plante Moran noted Community Education is one of the few programs of its kind in Michigan to have a surplus. Overall, Community Education has a nearly $2 million budget and employs 11 full time workers plus part time staff. There were 6,301 participants in Community Education programs.
According to the report, the directors see their organizations having different objectives in the community.
Community Education provides enrichment opportunities while the Rec Center offers health and fitness opportunities. The report also noted that the programs cooperate and communicate to keep from overlapping.
The idea of combining Community Education and Rec Center services was one of the concepts mentioned at the joint meeting last year. Patton sat down with Superintendent Scot Graden and City Manager Todd Campbell last fall to talk about areas of potential collaboration.
Some of those areas included information technology, building and grounds, maintenance and recreation/community education. Then he interviewed department heads in the district and city.
Patton said shared services in other areas likely wouldn’t save money. However, he said the district and city could realize savings by going in on purchases
Some of these topics will be part of the discussion when the ad hoc committee meets. City council and school board are expected to appoint two members each to the committee. Graden and Campbell are also expected to be present. Both Marl and Holden said hoped Pittsfield Township Supervisor Mandy Grewal would participate in the committee.
The school board and city council gave unanimous support to the idea of setting up an ad hoc committee to investigate the possibilities of shared services.
“The paradigm has shifted. The status quo doesn’t work anymore. Things need to change and we need to evolve. Privatization and consolidation are things we will need to explore if we are to survive,” Marl said. “We don’t run from history in Saline. We make history in Saline.”
Holden said he thought it was worthwhile to continue down the “curious path and see where it takes us.”