Copycat fight 

With revenue projections quadrupling those in previous years and updated equipment improving the quality of its work, the Wayne County Copy Center seemed poised for a glossy 2008.

The glass-fronted center is located in newly renovated space in the basement of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center conveniently near the elevators. It's been marketing itself with colorful brochures advertising its design, printing and binding work for county offices as well as walk-in business for the same services and general copying.

"I think it's a good service," says Caven West, the county's deputy clerk. "The monies that are made in that operation cover the expenses for that operation."

But the center, which by county charter is operated by the Wayne County Clerk's Office to do the county print work, has some local printing business owners angry about the competition and others wondering if a government entity, funded by taxpayers, should be taking work away from the private sector.

"I have heard from printers in my district that do have presses downtown and have called concerned about government being in competition with them," says Wayne County Commissioner Tim Killeen, who represents parts of Detroit's east side and the county's eastern suburbs. "They have called me and have been concerned about this in terms of, is this something legal the government can do? I'm looking into that for them. They are constituents of mine."

The copy center, West says, has had revenues of about $260,000 annually until this year. County agencies pay — transfer their funds to — the center for printing jobs that include reports, booklets, fliers and business cards. Expenses for employees, supplies and other costs are supposed to match the revenues, as the center operates within its own budget, West says.

In other words, it is not intended to generate a "profit."

Since 2006, the Wayne County Commission has approved three resolutions totaling about $1.7 million for the center's renovations, equipment leases and purchases. Commissioners in October also passed a three-year, $630,000 professional services contract with Xerox Corp. that pays for three full-time contractors to train the five county employees in the center, according to records.

 

West says county administrators requested the "investment" in the copy center after learning that some county agencies and employees were going to local print shops to have work done and paid for with county funds.

"In the county charter it specifically states that the Clerk's Office is responsible for reproduction services. That's the legal basis for this," West says. "Over time, the operation became obsolete because we didn't have state-of-the-art equipment. We didn't have the necessary staff with the necessary skill set to be able to provide whatever jobs the county department wanted us to produce. How was it that we had this copy center running nowhere near the capacity that we could be operating at?"

Cash-strapped counties, hampered further by state budget limits and uncertain federal funding for some programs, have to be resourceful about raising money, says Tom Hickson, director of legislative affairs at the Michigan Association of Counties.

"We are at a disadvantage from cities and townships," he says. "We are mandated to perform many services and the state is not paying for those mandates."

Counties must, for example, provide 50 percent of the costs for children in foster care placement and operate courts and jails. "We're on the hook to do that," Hickson says. "The cities and townships, they don't have to (provide) for police. They only have to collect taxes and provide water."

Counties and other municipalities do generate revenues through some programs and services that could be considered competition for private businesses — publicly owned golf courses or marinas, for example. But Summer Hallwood Minnick, director of state affairs for the Michigan Municipal League, says the difference is public services or facilities are designed to be cheaper than their private counterparts and therefore are creating "access" for people who may not be able to afford the privately operated programs.

"From our perspective, it really goes back to what are the elected officials looking to do. Are they trying to improve the quality of life? In most cases, they're reflecting what they're hearing from residents in the community," says Minnick.

But Wayne County's new printing equipment and staff and the projected $1 million in annual revenue attracted the attention of local printers, who are worried the expanded county-operated center will harm their businesses. Nick Wagner, the president of the Printing Industries of Michigan, the trade association for commercial graphics and printing companies throughout the state, says his members are angry.

"Obviously we're upset about this. It's unprecedented," Wagner says. "It just appears to me that a governmental body that has taxing authority should not be able to use those taxes to then compete against the companies that they govern."

Wagner's trade association hired lawyers to examine the legality of the copy center arrangement, but no final decisions have been made on how — or if — to proceed.

"If you brought this out to the nth degree, we'd all be working for the government because they'd own everything. They'd make cars; they'd make steel," he says. "It just isn't right. You cannot use the citizens to create a business that puts the citizens out of work."

Oakland and Macomb have print shops operated by the county but only for county work. Washtenaw County has contracts with outside printers. None of them offers printing services for outside customers that generate revenue for the county.

West, who spoke with Metro Times after Wagner, says it was "never" the county's intent to compete with local printers.

"Recently we've heard that some of the printers are concerned that we're going to be competing with them," he says. "Now that we know, we're willing to sit down with anyone. ... It was not our intent to compete with union shops. Now that we know, we will not do that. It was never our intent."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or ssvoboda@metrotimes.com

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