Mike Dornan, Wixom’s newly retired city manager and one of the area’s most respected leaders, has boxed up the photos of himself and notable leaders, the slew of local and national accolades, and the fond memories as he sets off for a new journey into retirement. Dornan’s legacy extends through a trio of Oakland County communities, including Wixom and Walled Lake. He departs on a high note. Thanks in part to his efforts, a new operating millage in Wixom passed during the Nov. 6 general election, and he can breathe easier now that the city budget is expected to be sustainable for another four years. Under Dornan’s watch, Wixom grew with such projects as the Wixom Road by-pass improvement project, the resurfacing of West Road to I-96, the I-96/Wixom Road interchange, and the Village Center Area (VCA) project. As a result, Wixom received the highest award in 2001 by Keep Michigan Beautiful, the President’s Award, for the design and local impact the VCA had on the community. Although the Ford Motor Co.’s Wixom assembly plant closed during his tenure, Dornan set up a budget stabilization fund to see the city through a dark time. Dornan is known for his acumen in fields of finance, economic development and planning, and considered a specialist in public/private partnerships, consolidation of municipal services, municipal finance and risk management. Apart from serving Wixom as city manager since 1991, he held the city manager position in Walled Lake for over 11 years and was assistant to the city manager and community development director in Farmington Hills for five years. Dornan is a founding member and past chairman of the Resource, Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County (RRRASOC), as well as the Western Oakland County Cable Communication Authority (WOCCCA). He currently sits on the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority, the International City/County Management Association, Michigan Society of Planning Officials, and Michigan City Managers Association boards. He is also the former executive director of the Wixom Community Foundation and a former member of the Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Michigan Municipal League (MML) Worker’s Compensation Fund Board of Directors and MML Transportation and Environmental Affairs Committee.
What were some of the professional highlights during your tenure in Wixom?
MD: One that comes to mind is we put together here, and I’m very proud of it, a machine of individuals. All my associates I work with day in and day out have grown up together professionally here, know their job, and the majority are cross-trained, including department heads, and have an appreciation for what each department’s responsibilities are. We have the smallest number of employees in any city you could probably find — 47 employees in a community of a population of 14,000.
No. 2, I would say I’m proud of the work we’ve been able to accomplish with surrounding communities and others in public/private and public/public partnerships. The consolidation services during this time when local governments face challenging situations is important and never has been more important.
Finally, I’m proud of the extension of Detroit water when we brought it here to Wixom. We put in our water tower — it took us two years to negotiate and get approval from Detroit. It saves us a great deal of money. There’s no question the Detroit system provides a world-class water product. Consequently, we have a world-class infrastructure — water, sewer, and roads.
You also held similar positions in Walled Lake and Farmington Hills. How did you leave your mark on those communities?
MD: I joined Farmington Hills after actually growing up in the Farmington/Franklin area. I went away to college and came back looking for a job and started in Farmington Hills. I put their first budget together shortly after their incorporation in 1975. Shortly after that, I moved into the area of economic and community development. The years I spent in Farmington Hills, the community was on fire — I mean, tremendous development was occurring and the things we did there established the building blocks for the kind of community Farmington Hills has grown up to be.
In Walled Lake, that was a little different challenge. It was a smaller town. In Walled Lake, I was able to convince people and (the City) Council the right thing to do was to abandon the Walled Lake water system. At that time, the irony of that project is that I called Wixom and spoke with the mayor to size the water pipes running through Walled Lake large enough so that, in the event that Wixom decided to in the future join the Detroit water system, they could. The irony is when I came to Wixom, we talked about the extension of the water system through Walled Lake and part of Wixom’s project was to dig up the pipes so we could size them to capacity. I pulled the water system through into Wixom.
The theme that carries throughout my career. In Farmington Hills, we established procedures and guidelines to handle the review of site plans for clients coming in quickly, but our codes and ordinances were no more rigid than across anywhere else. We just put a system together in each community where if you’re a developer you fill out a check list and site plan in quick stead. That’s another thing I’m proud of.
Reflecting on your career, in what do you personally take the most pride?
MD: I am particularly proud of my son, Matt, of course, who attends Grand Valley (State University). He’s a steady guy with a good sense of humor, which I think is important. It’s important that we don’t take ourselves ever too seriously. Matt’s my No. 1 guy and accomplishment. As far as personal gratification on a city front, I think I’m pleased to be able to sit back and look at the community and reflect on the good direction we’ve had from mayors and city councils over the years who accepted our ideas and proposals, who were enthusiastic on accepting what we did. I’ve never been one to do studies and leave them on the shelf. Throughout my career, the dirt started flying, construction started occurring almost as soon as the study was complete. The VCA here is a huge accomplishment for this community to create a place where people can come and renew friendships, greet neighbors, know one another, and families can mingle in a safe fashion.
What major changes have you seen throughout Oakland County during the last 37 years?
MD: As we grew up, the county grew up. My earliest memories of Wixom is coming to the co-op from our place at 14 Mile and Halsted Road to buy oats and bran for the animals. The change in Oakland County — the nature and character — has been so dramatic and it’s because of the kind of people who came before us like Jack Dohany, supervisor in West Bloomfield — huge, huge mentors of mine that I grew up with and knowing. Jim Reed in White Lake, Jim Seeterlin in Waterford, Bob Long in Commerce Township, to name just a few. These were guys and gals who loved their communities, in many cases grew up in them and many of them were farmers who turned toward developing their community. Not to forget the grand daddy of them all, (Oakland County Executive L.) Brooks Patterson. All of these folks had the courage you don’t find very often in government because of the pressure that politics puts on those who work in government. Those folks, Brooks and the others, had the courage to take the risks to create a place that places around the world are envious of.
What do you foresee as necessary steps for municipalities to take in order to stay fiscally afloat?
MD: It’s important to bring a business sense to the table. Multi-year budgeting is a must. We’ve been doing it here for nearly over 10 years. In addition, a constant review — internal reflection of the organization and analysis is necessary to continue to provide quality services to the public at the lowest cost. After all, we are the stewards of the public’s money and that’s an important thing to remember.
You have said before that Wixom was a model for many communities. How so?
MD: It’s all about having the courage to make the changes necessary to improve the organization. It’s in the culture of our organization here in Wixom to look at every piece of the operation and the organization as a whole. We’ve had our blunders, there’s no question. We have the courage to look at things and try them. All traditions were new at one time. The four-day compressed work week — we asked to look at for a year. We could save money on heating and cooling. We didn’t reduce our hours — we opened earlier and stayed open later. We found that the contractors who were waiting for the city to open at 8:30 were now here at 7:15 and were ready to conduct their business. I never received one complaint from implementing a compressed work week.
There are other things we’ve done that Gov. (Rick) Snyder has looked at us, like our budget stabilization plan and multi-year budgeting. We were one of the first to do that and we’ve been recognized (for it). There are others and people have called us. We’ve shared our request for proposals, to contract out our water and sewer system. We’re actually contract administrators more than municipal employees. We’ve managed these contracts that have outsourced and privatized different services. That’s what has set us apart. It gets back to the tone of City Council and the (city) manager to create an environment where people are not afraid to bring forward their suggestions and ideas.
After helping to build up Wixom from a rural town to a suburban hub through economic development, how can other communities in this fiscally challenging time retain businesses and attract new developments?
MD: No. 1, it’s your reputation. Your reputation, a good one, is very hard to create and easy to lose. You can lose your reputation in a night or one moment, but it takes years to create a good reputation and maintain it. One of our monograms here is, when a business is coming in and we tell them something, we follow through on it and deliver. You get what you see — that in the public and private sector, for me is one of the most important attributes that an organization can have to getting customers and retaining them.
Wixom attempted to raise the cap on the charter millage in the primary election and it failed. Then the city put forward a new millage initiative with a sunset of four years and that managed to pass. To what do you attribute the general election millage approval?
MD: I still believe the ballot question increasing the charter limit was the way to go, the right thing because Wixom has a charter limit of 8 mills. Ninety-nine percent of the communities in Michigan operate under state law and are allowed to levy 20 mills. The 8-mill cap was okay when the Ford plant was open, but property values fell. We took a 38-percent hit in our revenues because of it. It was strictly a business proposition when the August primary question was put on the ballot. It’s not just about police and fire (services). We could scare the pants off you like many communities do to get a millage question passed. We could have put up a dedicated millage for police and fire. I strongly feel that isn’t the right thing to do. It wasn’t the right or honest approach because when the community gets a police/fire millage question passed, it’s just a shift within the general fund freed up for other services. The truth be known, we said it like it was. We didn’t do a very good job, although it narrowly failed by 120 votes. Looking back at the 3.5 mills for 4 years and understanding that the expiration date — that’s fair. People like, and I’m included, to know what I’m buying, what it costs, and for how long. That gets down to the heart of the millage question here and why it passed. It was a decisive vote and vote of confidence from the community. It passed 60 to 40 percent; however, the day after the millage passed, job No. 1 in Wixom began. The day after the election, we began planning on how to utilize the people’s vote and money in a prudent and fiscally responsible way to ensure that our world-class services that we provide in Wixom are sustained to support and maintain our world-class status as a city.
Where do plans for the Ford Wixom assembly plant stand right now?
MD: Ford has been a 50-year partner. It was the largest assembly plant of any kind on the planet in its day. It produced over that time 6.6 million vehicles of all classes. We’ve been on an emotional roller coaster — several proposers coming and going. We’re still on the roller coaster. There are two potential purchasers. One bought 229 acres. Ford will keep 31 acres as a designated and closed landfill and maintain environmental liability of the landfill and monitor it. The purchaser of the 229 acres has a great deal of experience in development and demolition. They are bright and aggressive folks and have a great deal of contacts, and like to do projects and have the money to develop the plant. They intend to demolish the whole plant, including the slab that the buildings sit on.
Another 45 acres on the corner — there’s been a lot of talk of Menard’s coming into Wixom. They have a letter of intent to purchase. Menard’s will use 16 acres and the remaining 19 acres will be developed with retailers that more or less follow them. The city folks, in the last year, revised the master plan, and designated the 318 acres as a gateway planned unit development land use, meaning Ford property will be a mixed-use development with retail, office, research, manufacturing in a campus-like setting. Stay tuned. I would expect Menard’s to come to the Planning Commission for rezoning in 45 to 60 days. The Planning Commission will craft design requirements for the mixed-use development, and Menard’s and other purchasers will be required to follow.
Share with us some of your favorite memories as you exit Wixom. What will you miss most?
MD: I’ve been so privileged to do the work I love with people I enjoy in a place that’s very special. My role in the city has brought me tremendous fulfillment. I’m very proud of the legacy I leave behind. The city is in a very good place as it faces the challenges of the times to continue to preserve Wixom’s character as a safe and family-oriented community. That means most to me.
My wonderful associates — we call them “All hands.” One of our monograms is the world is governed by those who show up. You’ve got to, or the train will leave the station. Everyone has contributed to providing suggestions, reduced costs — and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to experience so many rewards with so many people for so long.
What’s next for you?
MD: I have an addiction to closing the deal. It’s almost anti-climatic after the deal is completed. I will be around in the community and keep an eye on what’s going on. After all, I have an investment here — it’s my home. I’m on the Tax Abatement Committee and a couple others. For the most part, I intend to do things I need to do for me that I haven’t done in 22 years around my house and, odd as it sounds, that’s what I want to do, and I can fill my time with that. I have an interest in visiting friends and there are those I haven’t seen for a long time who I want to catch up with.