Voters back taxes on local level

Voters across Michigan continue to show themselves willing to approve tax requests for local governments and schools, though some requests fare better than others.

That's the conclusion of a Center for Michigan analysis of May 3 tax elections around the state. More than 80 percent of the tax issues for schools and local governments gained voter support. Back in August 2010, a similar CFM analysis found that more than 90 percent of such levies gained voter approval in that primary election

In May, the city of Southfield was among those voting for additional taxes. An eye-opening 83 percent of voters said "yes" to a nearly 5 mill increase on property taxes, with the lion's share specifically designated for police, fire and emergency services.

"It really was just a matter of the facts and figures speaking for themselves," said Michael Manion, community relations manager for the city. Manion added that even with the increase, the average Southfield property owner was looking at a $300 decrease in their overall property tax bill.

In mid-Michigan, the city of Lansing had a similar pitch: Authorization for a 4-mill increase would still leave most property owners with a lower tax bill (thanks to shrinking property values) but would raise millions to help address a massive budget deficit expected to lead to police and fire layoffs.

But Lansing voters, bucking the overall trend, said "no."

So what is going on with taxpayers?

"I think that after a few years of cutbacks on local spending and services, people have a stronger sense of the link between tax payments and publicservices," said Mark Skidmore, who studies local government finances at Michigan State University. "Besides, a majority of homeowners are now paying less in terms of a total property tax bill then they were a few years ago just because of the general decline in home values. I also think that if locals ask for a millage that is tied to a specific service, the millage is far more likely to be successful."

Skidmore's analysis was echoed by Mark Grebner of Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing.

Grebner, who has studied voter lists and voter behavior for decades, agreed that the format of a tax request plays a huge role in its potential success,with millages visibly earmarked for certain items or constituencies (for roads or seniors, for example) doing much better than general tax requests.

The Southfield and Lansing results track with those trends. Whereas the Southfield ballot language gave specific figures on millage increases dedicated to specific services, the Lansing language said only that "the City may raise the current levy of 15.44 mills by 4 mills to 19.44 mills for the purpose of funding essential services, including police, fire, and local road maintenance ..."

In school elections, the trend wasn't necessarily the specific work to be funded, but whether the request was for new funds or the renewal of traditional levies. Of the 20 school measures that failed (out of a total of 125school questions on the ballot), the vast majority appear to have been requests for new bonds

William Mayes of Michigan Association of School Administrators called the school results a "mixed bag," while emphasizing the positive cases.

"Hudsonville had an $82 million bond and it passed big. Clawson's bond for technology passed 56 percent to 44 percent. Northville easily passed a 1 mill increase for building repairs. I don't think there was a real trend," he explained.

"Renewals tend to pass," Mayes added. "The key question is: Was this the right amount for the right things? Sometimes it is the wrong time to ask. I felt the election results were not abnormal."

On one topic, though, the trend was absolute: Voters in Jackson and Harper Woods roundly rejected the idea of combining police and fire departments into "public safety" units.

In Jackson, where the concept went down by a 2-1 margin, Mayor Karen Dunigan pointed out that only 3,000 of the city's 24,000 voters even participated. Though she admitted the consolidation idea would not be an immediate savings, it would stabilize the city's position in the long-term. She said the city has $80 million in long-term debt and no way to pay for it.

(Originally published May 25, 2011)

Come July 1, the city will go down to 15 firefighters, or half of its previous force. Seven or 8 police officers also will lose their jobs, she said.

"We are in a critical financial situation," Dunigan stated. So critical, in fact, that Dunigan took it upon herself to send a letter to State Treasurer Andy Dillon to request a review team for the city -- a precursor to the potential appointment of an emergency manager with broad powers to control spending.

"Our surveys show that local governments are decreasing their spending on infrastructure, decreasing the amount of services provided, decreasing their number of employees and so on," explained Tom Ivacko of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan. "There is indeed a public sector retrenchment under way, and citizens are starting to see and feel the effects in their daily lives."

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