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Bridge Michigan
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Taxing tensions in Troy

Jennifer Hilzinger is one of many Troy residents who sometimes can’t understand what’s going on in her hometown. One minute she’s living in the place she chose for its diversity, for its fine schools, for its friendly mix of amenities. The next, she’s being followed down the street by a guy on a bike.

Hilzinger was carrying petitions door-to-door to recall then-Mayor Janice Daniels, whose brief term as the city’s mayor drew unwelcome publicity. She knocked at one house, where the occupant refused to sign. She continued down the street, but “about two minutes later he hops on his bike and starts following me. He says ‘what you’re doing is wrong, she was fairly elected.’ He just followed and yelled at me.”

As political confrontations go, this was pretty tame, Hilzinger admits. Troy, like a lot of prosperous suburbs, doesn’t really do confrontation at the street level. But in recent years, the Oakland County city of 81,000 has become something of a ground zero for a grassroots tea-party movement that has led to plenty of strife.

Residents are squabbling over city finances, starting to recover after a slump that nearly led to the closure of the library. Feelings are also running high over the delayed opening of a new transit center – one of Mayor Daniels’ first battles, which she voted against shortly after her 2011 election. And while the emotions have ebbed somewhat since the recall fight last year, Daniels’ candidacy for a city council seat inspired the anti-tea party website Keep Troy Strong and a parody Twitter account  in her name. Sample: Janice Daniels for Council - Because I'm the only candidate promising a border fence between Troy and Madison Hgts!

Those who stand with the fiscal conservatives say Daniels (who did not respond to calls for comment) has little to do with what’s going on in the city, which they characterize as fiscally irresponsible and unwilling to admit its own errors in management.

“I have lived here 14 years and for most of that time, I totally ignored my local government,” said Dan Brake. “But in the fall of 2010, a local headline caught my eye, about the library. It was a referendum for a tax increase.”

The Troy Public Library had been functioning as a department of the city government, an unusual arrangement. When voters turned down, in a referendum, a 1.9-mill tax increase for all city services in 2010, a plan was launched to spin the library off the city’s budget and pursue a separate millage of .9885, also through referendum.

“It seemed to make sense to separate the library,” said Rhonda Hendrickson, who was then president of the Friends of the Troy Public Library. The millage increase would amount to about $100 per family, she said, and “we held public forums. We thought if we told them the facts, people would support the library. Who wouldn’t?”

Someone wouldn’t. Soon, three other petitions started circulating, for millage increases close to, but not exactly, .9885 mills. Voters were facing four separate ballot questions, and the Friends were in the position of running a campaign telling voters to approve only one of them. They all failed.

To a voter like Brake, the results showed the public was not supportive of new taxes for the library. To one like Hendrickson, it was the result of a dirty-pool campaign designed to confuse voters into exactly that result. So when the mayor was quoted in news media saying, “We will just have to vote again,” to Brake it sounded like arrogance. To Hendrickson it was good government.

To others in Troy, it brought up fundamental questions about what sort of community they wanted. The roots of the modern tea party are well-known, growing out of public discontent with the bank bailouts, stimulus and health-care reform. But Washington is far away. How do anti-tax attitudes play out in one’s own back yard?

To Brake, it means conservative spending and transparency. Local opponents to the current administration – Brake rejects the tea party label – believe the city’s financial problems were never as bad as they were touted to be. In fact, the city is holding public hearings soon to gather input on spending a $25 million fund balance that it accumulated through budget trims during the worst of the recession.

“The tea party calls it a ‘slush fund,’” said Mayor Dane Slater. “You’d call it a savings account.” He says it’s the result of serious financial retooling, including pay cuts and concessions, privatizing of some services, early retirement programs and others. These are one-time savings, Slater insists, not evidence of overtaxation.

If that’s true, Brake counters, why has it been growing for the past four years?

“We have a great community,” he said. “We don’t think we need to pay higher taxes to keep it.”

“I’m a Republican, but I call them the dark side,” said Linda Kajma, another library supporter. To her, taxes are best spent locally, and “if businesses are looking to locate, we need not only low taxes, but quality of life. And, she points out, Troy already has “one of the lowest tax rates in southeast Michigan,” 10.48 mills this year, compared to 12.6 in adjacent Sterling Heights and 15.46 in Birmingham. Rochester Hills, bordering to the north, is lower, at 9.7 mills.

Slater is also asking a question: “What sort of city do you want to live in? You want good schools, you want to be safe and you want amenities.” As he said this, he was sitting in one of the amenities, a sprawling community center, a 127,000-square foot complex that encompasses a preschool, banquet center, indoor swimming pool and fitness facility. It was financed early in the 2000s through bonds issued by the city’s Downtown Development Authority. Like many in Michigan, falling property values drained the DDA’s revenues to the edge of default last year. This summer, the city stepped in to refinance the bonds.

Slater said the city could do so, in part, because of its AAA bond rating, and “had we not had a fund balance that kept us at triple-A, we were able to refinance at an acceptable rate.”

With city elections coming in November, many see it as yet another, but informal, referendum – on whether the conservatives have legs after Hurricane Janice. The library finally got a .7 millage passed and is safe for now; the gradually improving economy has pulled the city back from the brink. But the conservatives reliably attend every city council meeting, demanding the city cease its “smoke and mirrors” about the transit center and other issues.

“I think (Troy is) only different in that there are a few people who for a variety of personal reasons have chosen to get engaged,” said Brake. “Instead of watching the World Series, we go to council meetings. Two a month.”

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