After a full work shift at the Department of Public Works, Kathy Ritter braved a chilly rain to help string up holiday lights on a tall evergreen off Goddard, just outside downtown.
Ritter, the steward of Teamsters Local 214, was off the clock, working on her own time to help ensure the downtown looks merry this year, even with a tight city budget.
“We know the entire community is struggling,” Ritter said as she unfurled a string of lights. “The crew that normally does this was laid off. We want to help out in every way we can until we get through these tough economic times.”
Throughout Metro Detroit, communities are working to make more with less this holiday season. Deficits, falling tax revenues and the sluggish economy have forced municipalities to save money on holiday decorations and events.
In some cases, it means paring down lights and displays. In others, like Romulus, it means management and labor working together to make sure the city has a festive vibe.
“Think about the youth — they don’t know what’s going on, they just know it’s Christmas,” said LeRoy Burcroff, Romulus mayor pro tem, who also helped with the setups. “They don’t know the pain communities are going through.”
Romulus laid off 30 city workers this year. Salaries and benefits have been cut. A fire station was closed.
The light display typically costs the city about $6,000 to stage and was in danger of cancellation this year before the volunteers stepped up, officials said.
“Every little bit helps,” Burcroff said.
Southfield made the switch to LED lights this season. The LED lights cost more than traditional lights but use about one-tenth the electricity, allowing the city to shrink its holiday electric bill.
Bob Murray, Southfield’s parks and operations supervisor, couldn’t give a dollar estimate but said the savings would be in the thousands.
The new lights are more reliable — no more searching through strings of lights to find a bad bulb. In past years, it would take three people to check the strings and make sure the bulbs worked.
Now the work is done by one person, Murray said.
In Plymouth, it’s all about partnering to preserve displays and events. Uniting are the Downtown Development Authority and businesses, schools and the Chamber of Commerce, said John Buzuvis, director of business operations and special projects.
Instead of carrying the expense itself, the DDA shares costs with the chamber for events including Santa’s arrival downtown the day after Thanksgiving.
“We have kind of a combined-forces approach,” Buzuvis said. “What we’ve done is pooled our resources to make sure we’re getting the best bang for the buck.”
To promote such events, Plymouth officials are relying more on cheaper or free options, including social networking sites.
“It really makes you take stock in your inventory and work hard on the most efficient way to do things,” Buzuvis said.
Other cities are scaling back by reducing the areas they light up. In Taylor, crews no longer hang lights along Eureka or on Pardee from the community center to Northline Road.
Royal Oak’s public services department has shrunk to 44 employees from 54 five years ago, so the scope of lighting has been cut back, said Greg Rassel, director of public services.
Not every community is cutting. Wayne County Parks added 17 displays to its Lightfest, which features more than 1 million lights on a four-mile route from Westland to Dearborn Heights. The display, which costs $5 a car, is open 7-10 nightly through Dec. 31, except Christmas Day.