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Cold topic, hot debate

Officials not keen on DDA bidding snow removal

December 01, 2010 - It's ironic that a chilly subject like snow removal could cause such a heated debate, but it did at last week's Oxford Village Council meeting.

You could cut the tension with a knife as officials discussed the Downtown Development Authority's desire to seek bids for snow removal work that's traditionally been performed by the village Department of Public Works.

"This is putting up a wall between the village and the DDA," said Councilman Tony Albensi. "I should say the DDA is putting up that wall with this in particular."

The DDA has already advertised for bids from private contractors. They are due Dec. 1 by 4 p.m. It was noted that council has the final say on whether or not any bids are actually awarded because all the DDA can do is make a recommendation.

The scope of work includes removing the snow when it's 2 inches or more (or as service is requested) from the four downtown quadrant parking lots. In the past, this work has always been performed by the DPW.

However, the bid request also contains work that's currently not done by the DPW such as shoveling the fronts and backs of businesses in the four quadrants and the sidewalks along M-24 located north and south of the four quadrants all the way to the DDA/village limits.

DDA Director Madonna Van Fossen explained that the DDA is looking to compare costs for certain services it currently pays the village $85,000 per year for the DPW to provide.

Manager Joe Young said the DDA is looking for ways to save some money and have it "diverted for other projects."

"There are several projects that the DDA would like to pursue, but can't because we don't have the money," Van Fossen told council.

Village President Teri Stiles observed the DDA is getting a bargain when it comes to DPW services.

According to an itemized list provided by Young, the DPW's downtown workload includes clean-up/maintenance, landscaping, snow removal/ice control, set-up and clean-up for special events and putting up banners, flags and decorations.

The total cost for doing all this, plus paying to keep all the downtown street lights lit, is $155,518. Of that, $49,130 is spent on snow removal/ice control in the downtown and its parking lots, according to Young.

The DDA's $85,000 contribution amounts to 55 percent of this total cost, meaning the village pays the other $70,518 (or 45 percent).

"The services that the DDA gets, I think, are well worth the money that they pay," Stiles said.

The idea of having private contractors bidding on work that's always been part of the DPW's duties didn't set well with some officials. "Bidding out against your community's DPW is not (presenting) a united front for our community," Albensi said.

He felt the DDA is being antagonistic toward council. "I feel like the DDA is trying to strong-arm the village council," Albensi said. "The DDA works at the pleasure of the village council. They need to understand that. I hate to be harsh like that, but that's the reality of the situation."

"I think this is wrong," said Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth. "I don't know when picking apart village services became open for debate. Cheaper isn't necessarily better. It's not necessarily in the best interests of the village."

"In the 22 years that I've been employed here, we've never had to bid on our own work," said DPW Superintendent Don Brantley. "I think myself and the employees would be very uneasy if we had to bid out every aspect of our jobs."

"If an RFP (Request for Proposal) came out tomorrow (from) the village council looking for a DDA director, you'd be a little on edge," he noted.

Brantley characterized DPW services as an "all or nothing" proposition.

"We're not an a la carte service," he said. "I mean, you can't just pick and choose."

Officials were also concerned about the idea of the DDA paying a private contractor to plow property that's traditionally been the responsibility of business and property owners.

The backs of businesses in downtown's four quadrants are a mixture of public and private property, while the fronts are all public property.

Business and property owners have always been responsible for keeping both the front and back sidewalks clear of snow during the winter.

"Once the DDA starts doing private property, there's going to be a reasonable expectation that the village continues to do that private property and if it's not done, the village is liable for that," Albensi said.

Albensi noted there are homes along M-24 within the DDA district, so if the DDA hired a private contractor to plow all of its sidewalks, tax dollars would be paying for them as well.

"Is the DDA going to come in and do my sidewalk?" he said. "I know I'm not in the DDA district, but hey, I pay taxes in this community. Why not?

Elsewhere in the village, residents and business owners are required by ordinance to shovel the snow on the sidewalks in front of their properties.

Brantley noted the DPW is looking at doing a "pilot program" this winter in which its employees would plow only the front sidewalks of businesses within downtown's four quadrants.

This experimental programs would help the DPW determine how much extra effort it would take, if any additional equipment would be required and how efficiently it could be done, according to the superintendent.

Van Fossen told council the DDA's pursuit of snow removal bids wasn't meant to be confrontational.

"I don't believe the intent of the DDA is to go out and find somebody to do it cheaper because we question whether or not (the DPW is) doing a good job. That's not the question at all," she explained. "It was more under the pretense of getting a cost analysis, so we could compare, so we could be confident in how our monies are being spent."

Albseni pointed out that Van Fossen "contradicted" herself.

"You said . . . that it's not about the cost, yet in your next statement you said it's about a cost analysis for us (the DDA) to make sure we're getting the best bang for our buck. So, it is about the cost."

"This is just an attempt by the DDA to get some clarification as to specifically what the $85,000 for the DPW had been (used for)," Van Fossen noted.

Snow removal aside, Van Fossen brought up the issue of how the DDA does not have a "formal contract" with the village or DPW for the $85,000 it spends and services it receives. The DDA also doesn't have a contract with the village or its police department for the $60,000 it spends annually for law enforcement services.

She noted that representatives from Main Street Oakland County have expressed "grave concern" over the fact that no contracts exist.

"There have been questions raised by Oakland County regarding the legality of that," she said.

Van Fossen said in the three years she worked for the DDA she's asked the village "several times," but "never been presented" with a copy of a contract for these services. In fact, despite repeated requests, she didn't even get a detailed breakdown of what the DDA spends its $85,000 on until a few months ago.

Young indicated he's told VanFossen to simply get a copy of a similar contract from another Main Street community and use it as a template. "I'm not going to take the time to write something that's already been written by somebody else," the manager said.

Van Fossen also indicated there are some on the DDA board who are concerned about the manner in which the village contributes its $194,451 in captured tax monies to the DDA, then takes $145,000 back for police and DPW during the budget planning process.

She said there's a "fear" among DDA board members that if they don't give the village this money, their budget won't be approved by council.

But some council members were quick to note the village isn't taking any money.

"It's not taking it back," Stiles said. "It's money that the village should be getting because of the services."

Stiles noted the Village of Lake Orion charges its DDA for police and DPW.

According to Lake Orion DDA Director Suzanne Perreault, the DDA pays the village a total of $151,200 annually – $60,000 for police services, $31,200 for DPW services and $60,000 for administrative services.

There is a contract for these services in place between Lake Orion's DDA and village government, Perreault said.

Helmuth said the village is simply giving the DDA what it wants. "We are providing services that the DDA has represented business owners as wanting," she said.

Helmuth cited as examples the DPW cleaning up trash from around the commercial dumpsters and the police checking to make sure merchants' doors are locked at night.

In the end, Van Fossen admitted that seeking bids for services provided by the DPW might not have been the best approach for the DDA to obtain a cost analysis of those services. "I recognize now that maybe there was a better way to do this," she said.

Van Fossen stressed that the DDA is "very appreciative" of the DPW's services and the bid request was not meant to imply any dissatisfaction with them.

She expressed her hope that a future joint meeting between the village council and DDA board would be an opportunity for both sides to share information with each other and open the lines of communication.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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