OPC budget dispute coming down to the wire

As the calendar quickly runs down toward the end of the year, the Rochester Older Persons Commission finds itself without an approved budget for 2012.

The OPC board has approved a budget, but the city of Rochester, one of three municipalities that must also approve that budget, has so far declined to do so. The reasons include a 1-percent pay raise, a first-ever pension contribution for full-time employees, and a new provision to compensate employees who opt out of health-care coverage.

Rochester, Rochester Hills and Oakland Township all fund the OPC through a contract called an interlocal agreement. Under the ILA, the three municipalities’ elected governing bodies appoint members to the OPC board and must approve the OPC budget. This is the first time one of the entities has elected not to approve an OPC budget.

The OPC came under scrutiny a year ago when its board approved a tiered pension to provide a 15-percent pension contribution to longtime OPC director Marye Miller, with lesser amounts going to her full-time employees. Under intense criticism, that plan was withdrawn; more recently, 6 percent for all 15 full-time employees was approved.

Rochester Councilman Stuart Bikson, who was appointed to the OPC board in the wake of the pension dispute, voted for the 6-percent plan, but not the raises and the health-care payment.

“That was just way too much,” he said. He pointed to a new Rochester Police contract that contains no raises for the next three years. “How can we approve a pay increase for OPC if we’re not giving one to our employees?” he said. “People are out of work or getting pay cuts, and the OPC is giving pay increases.”

Jack Dalton, a former Rochester Hills councilman who chairs the OPC board, said OPC employees haven’t had a raise in the last three years. He said despite the economic downturn, the OPC has built up its fund balance to a healthy level, coming in under budget last year.

“We’re moving along, I think, real well,” he said. “About two years ago we got ahead of the curve with the downsizing of millages and we’ve taken some good steps with preparing for that.”

Underlying the budget dispute is the shared authority the municipalities exercise under the ILA. If all three don’t agree on something, there is little guidance on how to proceed. It’s been a problem before, when the city of Rochester and the OPC went to court over the OPC’s age requirement. The judge sided with the OPC.

Dalton appointed a subcommittee to try to work out the budget dispute. A separate committee is working on revising the ILA.

What happens if an agreement can’t be worked out? “I don’t know, to be honest with you,” Dalton said. “We’ve got a situation where 90 percent of the people have approved it, and 10 percent haven’t.”

Miller said the OPC can operate without Rochester’s contribution, which she put at about $171,000 this year.

“It’s not hurting anyone except the seniors that live inside Rochester,” she said. “Then they can’t get the services.”

Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett said he’s hopeful the subcommittee can resolve the impasse by the OPC’s next meeting on Dec. 1.

“I don’t want to play the what-if scenarios. I’m not sure it advances us,” Barnett said. “I think the organization has run very well myself, so I don’t think it needs a lot of external government intervention. … We have a great product.”

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