Battle Creek

Battle Creek City Manager talks 2023 priorities

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

When asked to summarize 2022 in one word for the City of Battle Creek, City Manager Rebecca Fleury says, “Transition.” 

The past year was about “the transition from COVID and budget fatigue to a post-COVID way of operating, not focusing so much on the pandemic response, but focusing on what the community needs to look like as we roll out of a pandemic,” she says 

This required adjustments to the city’s human and financial resources, “in a good way when it comes to finances, but not so much when it comes to human resources,” she says. 

In terms of staffing, Fleury says the city has still not come back to its pre-2020 number of employees “because we made difficult decisions in 2021 to right-size our workforce, which had a negative impact on personnel and morale. When you eliminate 27 jobs, it’s not easy for those who were let go and those who are left behind.”

The hard decisions made in 2021 to reduce staff and put some initiatives on hold “set us up better for 2022. Our General Fund budget is higher than before and we are utilizing one-time dollars to do those projects. We can still sustain our operating budget when those projects are completed.” 

Those one-time dollars amounted to $30.5 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds allocated to the city. City Commissioners set aside $10 million of this allocation for community organizations to use to fund projects that will directly benefit the community.
 
“The City Commission re-granting $10 million of ARPA dollars into the community has been huge,” Fleury says. “It’s impacting everyday life and advancing projects and services that could have never advanced at this pace without those dollars, including food insecurity and transportation. We’re trying to improve conditions for populations including the unhoused and ALICE families. Everything can tie back to ARPA dollars granted into the community.”

Fleury says she’s most proud that city leaders have done what they said they would do with the ARPA dollars, as well as the decision by City Commissioners to use those one-time dollars to set the city on a sustainable path.

“As we have been doing that, other revenue streams are coming out a little bit better” than anticipated, she says. “The city’s income tax revenue is better than any economist who I called thought it would be. We don’t know why the income tax didn’t tank. That’s not to say that we didn’t see a loss. But economists were predicting an over-aggressive loss of between 40 to 50 percent.” 

The projected income tax revenue loss in 2020 for the city was in that 40 to 50 percent range. The actual loss was 20 percent. Fleury says she doesn’t have an answer for this wide-ranging difference.

An increase in revenue dollars from the Michigan State Legislature and access to state and local ARPA dollars has meant that “we have been able to put ourselves on the best fiscal path that we’ve been on in decades and we’re able to meet our expenses,” she says. 

In addition to the overall financial health of the city, Fleury highlighted the following priority areas for Battle Creek in 2023:

Technology:

“We are trying to position ourselves to better serve our community from a technology standpoint. The pandemic forced us to utilize technology for the betterment of our community.”

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion:

“Many of the things we started in 2022 will become highlighted work items in 2023. The DEI work and the Equity Audit were completed in 2022 and the City Commission directed me to advance those things.

“The Equity Audit included some big things to consider such as the elimination of Public Act 78  which was established in 1935 and focuses on the civil service system for fire and police personnel.”

PA 78 includes a “very defined process for hiring and promoting firefighters. In the audit it mentioned that it is old, antiquated, and putting up barriers to the hiring process,” Fleury says. “Its removal would require a ballot initiative voted on by residents. It’s something that (Kimberly Holley) our new Diversity Equity and Inclusion Officer will work on with our office. We’ll be making sure that we engage the fire department in these discussions.”

Citizens Review Board:

Discussion around establishing a Citizens Review Board will be prominent, Fleury says.

“The formation of this board is an ongoing conversation with our Human Relations Board, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and others in the community. We do expect that discussion to continue, and a proposal to create one would come to the City Commission. The Citizen Review Board would make their recommendations and give direction on where they want to advance their work which will be informed by a Police and EMS study going on now. We hope to have that final report in the first or second quarter of this year. They are intricately linked and we want to be strategic and mindful about how we look at those two.”

Housing:

Housing is a big thing on the spectrum of priorities from the city’s perspective, says Fleury. “As companies come into Calhoun County and we look at the Marshall Mega-Site and its marketing nationwide and worldwide, we are making sure as the largest population city in the county that we are supporting that.

“That support will include having available a variety of housing – from transitional to market-rate -- and transportation options and a culture of vitality to and figuring out what we can do as a county to be enticing and attractive.

“The city is involved in those discussions. We’re doing a Charette at the Dolliver Building. We will work with the Land Bank and Neighborhoods Inc. to determine affordable housing options at the former K-Mart site, infill housing in the near northside, and market-rate housing in the near northside and Post-Franklin neighborhoods.

“We know we’re tens of thousands short on housing units. If something were to pop at the Megasite, we’d need to have housing available. Marshall needs to do the same. We all have to work together to increase housing options.”
 
Transportation:

“We will need to figure out how we get the talent we get at the Megasite there and back and that only helps with the discussion now going on about a countywide transportation system. If we have a countywide transportation authority, we’ll have more ability and capability to have transportation options.

“We have BC Go as a pilot program and we cannot even begin to meet the demand. We have two vans and we need at least 20. We know it’s needed and we have the data to support it. We need the funding to do it. The advancement of the Transportation Authority in 2023 is high on the list of initiatives. We don’t have the time and resources to be possessive of who owns what. How do we make this happen, particularly with the Marshall Megasite and the opportunities that provides?”

Branding:

“A lot of people talk about “Are we still the Cereal City? If not, what are we?” We want to be the community of choice where someone wants to live, work, and play, and branding has a lot to do with that. This includes the city’s logo flag and how we advertise it. It’s certainly important to the City Commission. With the Kellogg Co. decision to split into three separate entities we need to see how that is going to show up in 2023, 2024, and 2025. How can we lift that up as well as other things happening in the city?” 
 
The high cost of…everything:

“We are dealing with inflation and the increasing prices for goods and materials and a supply chain that is still recovering from the pandemic. Everything is coming in at overestimated budget. This hinders our work. Hinders in realms like housing.”

Workforce, talent pool

“I think workforce development and the talent pool continue to be a challenge. Government in general is a very difficult arena to recruit to. We are trying to be quick in making those adjustments to pay and benefits or stipends for community volunteer work or paternity leave. We are thinking differently in order to recruit and retain. We’re seeing the Gen X retirement wave begin to happen, and we’re not seeing a pipeline coming from behind. Millennials are making different choices when it comes to public service and that’s a work in progress. How are we responding to that with things that are completely out of our control?

“I would never have thought that we’d have to adjust to having workers work from home. We need to look at offering hybrid work schedules to adapt to the new needs of the workforce talent coming in. We do our best to be proactive.”

Placemaking and vibrancy:

“When you talk about a city of choice, you have to think about it in its totality. The pandemic has shown us that you can work from home anywhere. We need to look at what types of events and shops will attract people. Are we lifting up People of Color? And what other things should we be thinking about differently as a community of choice? What human and financial resources do we have and how can we collaborate to build capacity?

“People will choose the community that is already invested in this. If we don’t find ways to have more positive change and impact then another community will, and businesses and people will flock to those making a difference in these areas.

“I want the community to know that engaging with them is key and will be a part of everything we do. We are using what we hear and gather and incorporating that into our action plans throughout the organization.”

 

Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.