Ex-city manager teaches emergency manager avoidance tips
When Ed Koryzno talks to officials in financially troubled communities, he can say to them with conviction, “Been there, done that.”
Koryzno, hired earlier this year by the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder to help advise troubled communities, used to work through many of the same difficulties that financially troubled local governments are struggling to survive. Prior to coming to Lansing, Koryzno spent more than a decade as the city manager of Ypsilanti, a city that has consistently struggled as economic and financial conditions changed across Michigan.
That experience, Koryzno said, is helpful when he meets with local officials today. He has walked their walk, he said.
In his position, the state hopes to “help those communities that are on the bubble from going into PA 4 status,” Mr. Koryzno said.
PA 4 is the controversial emergency manager law enacted in 2011 that critics say gives an appointed emergency manager too much authority to counteract the views of voters and local governments and abrogate contracts. The act, a dramatic refinement of the state’s previous financial emergency law, has been subjected lately to decisions by Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette that it violates Michigan’s Open Meetings Act (in terms of the financial review teams) and is facing the possibility of a referendum on the November ballot. Several communities and school districts -- Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Flint, Ecorse, Detroit Public Schools and Highland Park Public Schools -- have emergency managers overseeing their operations.
And whether the city of Detroit joins those ranks remains a politically charged question. The financial review team overlooking the city’s finances is supposed to make a recommendation to Snyder by the end of the month on whether an emergency exists. Meanwhile, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is still working to get union concession agreements and make other financial changes to avoid the need for an emergency manager.
Koryzno said he has not been involved in the Detroit situation. His focus is on communities struggling now who face the possibility of an emergency manager being named. State officials have said that could be as many as 10 other communities, as matters now stand.
While Koryzno is the first state official specifically named to work with local communities on avoiding emergency manager status, he said that, eventually, there could be as many as 10 people working on that topic.
Few of them are likely to have the depth of local government service found in Koryzno's resume.
Originally from Muskegon, Koryzno attended Michigan State University, where he earned two degrees, including a master’s in public administration. His first experiences in government came from internships, including one with then-Sen. Tony Derezinski (now a member of the Ann Arbor City Council). Koryzno then began as an assistant city manager in the Flint suburb of Fenton, eventually becoming the city manager there. He also served as manager for Spring Lake and Grand Haven before became city manager in Ypsilanti in 1996.
It was in Ypsilanti that Koryzno ran up against the financial struggles now so common across Michigan. “I had no idea that would end up being my forte -- turning challenging situations around,” he said.
In Ypsilanti, one of the biggest problems was losing one of its largest employers when Visteon shuttered a plant in the city.
Even before that, though, Koryzno said five-year projections the city ran showed its revenue and expenditure lines would cross, forcing the city to make major changes to its operations.
So began a series of public meetings, an attempt to bring in all local interest groups to discuss problems and how to resolve them. Relationship-building was critical, he said.
Ypsilanti also had something of an advantage with Eastern Michigan University within its borders. The university played a big role in helping the city in setting priorities and working with local groups and finding alternative ways of providing services, Korzyno explained.
But budget cuts remained a requirement for Ypsilanti. For example, it had to close its recreation department. Community groups have come together to help run some of the recreation operations, but not at the same level as the city was able to provide, said Koryzno, who enjoys cycling in his spare time
Koryzno, 60 and the married father of four, left Ypsilanti this past winter, but the city is continuing to work through its problems. Voters there will decide in May on whether to impose an income tax on themselves for the first time.
“I like to talk about the five stages of grief as far as (budget) cutting goes,” Koryzno said. Like a person in mourning, the fact that budget cuts must be made can be personally overwhelming and find a person in denial.
“What I’ve tried to do is explain there is no magic bullet,” Koryzno said. Communities are faced with either making budget cuts or raising revenues to keep their financial situations sound.
It is essential that cities and other communities set priorities, looking carefully at what services they want to provide and how they can provide those services, Koryzno said. In many cases, that could include working collaboratively with other governments on services such as police and fire.
It is also critical that local officials realize these decisions have to be a group effort, he said. “City managers have to encourage a dialogue with the community and involve the public,” he said.
Even for communities not now in financial distress, the exercise of reviewing services and setting priorities is important because all communities will see changes to how they operate in the future, Koryzno said.
For decades, communities were able to ride the wave of overall good economic times and provide broad-based services, Koryzno said, officials “thought they could ride that wave forever.”
To realize now that is not possible is “so devastating,” he said.
John Lindstrom is publisher of Gongwer News Service Michigan, a subscription service that covers daily activities at the Capitol and in state government. Lindstrom is a graduate of Michigan State University and has worked in Michigan journalism for more than three decades.
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