'Shadow Tax Cut' deepens local budget crises

A $900 million cut in property tax revenues since 2007, the "Shadow Tax Cut," has devastated the budgets of local governments that heavily rely on these taxes to provide police and fire protection -- and a host of other services.

They’ve laid off hundreds of firefighters, police officers and other employees; cut pay and benefits; closed libraries and community centers. Some are keeping their city halls open only four days a week. Local government employment in Michigan is down by 53,600 jobs since its November 2006 peak of 438,500, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In one extreme case, DTE Energy repossessed two-thirds of Highland Park’s street light poles in August after the poverty-stricken city couldn’t afford to pay the $60,000 monthly light bill.

BRIDGE DATA: See property tax collections in your community

“I think we’ve gone beyond cutting out the fat. We’re cutting into the bone now,” said Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, a regional planning agency. “I’ve never seen local governments under such pressure in providing core services.”

A survey by the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy found that half of Michigan’s largest local governments plan to reduce the number of services they provide next year.

Pontiac, for example, a once-prosperous auto-making town with a population of 59,500, no longer can afford its own police department. It turned over its 50-officer force to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department in August.

And the state Treasury Department estimates 2011 property tax revenues will be at least $1.2 billion less than 2007 revenues, putting even more financial pressure on local governments.

Although declining property values appear to be bottoming out, local officials aren’t cheering just yet. That’s because the 1978 Headlee Amendment and Proposal A, approved by voters in 1994, will limit increases on the taxable value of property for years to come.

“We won’t get back to our 2007 taxable level until 2025,” said Robert Daddow, deputy county executive in Oakland County.

"No one ever contemplated a decline in property values when Headlee was passed," said Grosse Pointe City Manager Peter Dame. "Now we will be permanently stuck down at 1990s revenue levels trying to finance government services 20 years later."

Daddow and others say local units of government failed to tighten their belts quickly enough when property values started plunging during the worst economic downturn since the Great Recession.

“The reduction in property values was apparent five years ago,” said Patrick Anderson, president of the Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing. “Despite warnings from many of us, a lot of local governments were taken by surprise by the declines.”

About this project

To assess the effects of declining property values on tax collections and household budgets, Bridge Magazine took data from the Treasury Department gleaned from all ofMichigan's local governments. The result was a $1.6 billion cumulative tax cut between 2007 and 2010, adjusted to 2010 dollars.

$1.6 billion shaved off Michigan property tax bills

On the block: Taxes in Lansing, Troy, Wyoming

Despite $300 million reduction, businesses seek relief

What was Shadow Tax Cut in your town?

Smaller communities buck tax loss trend

But few knew things would get so bad. And now some of the state’s largest cities, particularly in economically hard-hit Southeast Michigan, are struggling to stay afloat financially.

Flint this week was assigned its second state emergency manager in 10 years. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has said his city will run out of money by February unless employee unions agree to concessions.

 Hazel Park, a working-class suburb in Oakland County, offers a typical example of what cities across the state have had to do to stay afloat in recent years.

This city of 16,400 has shrunk its work force from 120 to about 90 over the past decade. It has cut the hours worked by clerical employees from 37.5 hours a week to 32 hours. Two years ago, full-time workers took a 5 percent pay cut.

“It’s especially tough on older communities that have high legacy costs and nowhere to grow,” said Hazel Park City Manager Edward Klobucher. “We have a significant number of retirees and old infrastructure that’s in need of repair.”

Total tax revenues, including property taxes and revenue sharing, in Hazel Park fell 9 percent between 2009 and 2010. The city also had 1.39 retirees receiving pensions for every municipal worker in 2010, a 10 percent increase in pensioners from 2009.

The budgetary strains have reached into the most prosperous corners of Michigan.

"On top of what was included in (the Bridge report), in 2011, Grosse Pointe experienced another 4.5 percent decline in property tax revenues -- and I am expecting a similar decline in 2012," said Grosse Pointe's Dame. "When a place like Grosse Pointe is facing such significant financial challenges making ends meet, you know there is a serious problem."

Voters join search for local dollars

Gov. Rick Snyder is pushing local governmental units to become more efficient by working with each other to consolidate services. Communities must show how they’re trying to share service in order to receive their full revenue sharing payments, which are down from previous years.

But residents of many communities are voting to keep services intact, especially police and fire, by approving tax increases.

A survey of 73 millage issues in the Nov. 8 local elections by the MIRS news service in Lansing found that 60 of them, or 82 percent, passed.

Approvals included a 4-mill increase in Lansing to avoid layoffs in the police and fire departments, a sinking fund millage that will raise $4.3 million to repair school buildings in Grand Rapids and an additional 2.1 mills to fund road repair in Warren.

“While legislators continue to talk about the need for more efficiencies, they are failing to realize that local communities are doing everything possible to combine services and that the state cuts are just leading to local tax increases,” said Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League.

To add insult to the injury of the property tax revenue declines, the state has cut revenue sharing payments to cities, villages and counties by $4.2 billion since 2001, including $499 million last year, according to MML.

Some say the dire straits that local governments find themselves in demand an overhaul of Michigan’s tax system.

“What we have right now is a really complicated system. If we were to pick a time to fix it, this would be a great time,” said Eric Lupher, director of local affairs at the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

One fix he advocates is exempting increased revenues resulting from the sale of property from the Headlee cap, which limits local government revenue growth to the rate of inflation.

There often is a wide difference in taxable value, created by Proposal A, and state equalized value on homes that have not changed hands in years.

When such homes are sold, the taxable value is adjusted up to the state equalized value, resulting in additional revenues for local governments and schools. That extra revenue is included in the Headlee cap.

"Coupled with the abrogation of the state’s commitment to revenue sharing and the lack of a revenue source for fixing roads, it is clear to me that the state of Michigan needs to start over with the whole system of local government finance," said Grosse Pointe's Dame. "Other states have far more options to general revenue locally. A new partnership between the state and its local governments should be forged."

Hazel Park's Klobucher struck a similar note: “I’m hoping somebody in Lansing will realize the whole system is broken and that we’re in a desperate situation."

That’s probably wishful thinking.

The Republican-controlled Legislature isn’t interested in any changes to the Headlee Amendment or Proposal A that result in tax increases, a spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger said in an email.

“The speaker's position on this issue, as with many others, is that we should not be doing anything that makes Michigan less attractive to job providers or tougher on taxpayers,” spokesman Ari Adler said.

“At all levels of government, if services can no longer be afforded, then leaders need to reconsider whether those services should be provided or at what level,” Adler said.

Tax appeals stack up at tribunal

Another ticking financial time bomb for local units of government is the huge number of pending property tax appeals at the Michigan Tax Tribunal.

The tribunal, which hears property assessment appeals from local businesses and homeowners, has about 42,000 pending cases. Of those, about 28,000 are small claims appeals, mostly from homeowners.

Automakers and many other major corporations have cases pending before the tribunal. Officials say local units of government could be forced to refund millions of dollars in previous years’ taxes, should they lose those cases.

“Most communities have not set aside any money to fund these losses,” Daddow said. “They’re going to get stuck pretty badly.”

Many local units of governments have already spent past years’ tax payments and would have to raise taxes to pay refunds to taxpayers that win their appeals, Daddow explained.

If there is any good financial news for local governments, it is that the decline in property values appears to be easing.

A new report by SEMCOG found taxable property values in Southeast Michigan this year fell 6.5 percent, which was less than its predicted 9.6 percent decline.

And the drop in taxable property values should slow to 0.4 percent by 2014, SEMCOG reported.

Although 48 percent of local governments in the latest U-M survey said they were experiencing fiscal problems, that was down from 61 percent last year.

“Optimistically, it may mean the fiscal crisis that has been hitting local governments peaked in 2010,” the U-M study said. “Another interpretation is that local governments are better able to meet their financial needs because of cuts in employees and services.”

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Thu, 12/01/2011 - 9:46am
One of the largest contributors to budget deficits at all levels is the legacy costs of pensions and healthcare. Everyone needs to start at the top and solve this. No more lifetime healthcare after serving in the state legislature for only 6 years. No more almost 100% of pay or even over 100% of pay pensions. No more pensions that kick in instantly if the person is rehired as a consultant to fill the job he retired from. No more healthcare when a person turns 65, as Medicare takes care of that. Minimum age of 55 before a person can receive a pension. No more accrual of sick days - use it or lose it. And for the longer term, no more defined benefit pension or medical plans, only defined contribution. Also, no government entity gets to vote on their own benefits. This list is just a small start. I'm sure there are lots more ideas. Just mimic what the private sector has done. The taxpayers should not have to suffer because of the weakness of government management.
Graydon DeCamp
Thu, 12/01/2011 - 10:06am
Useful for analysis. Sort by gross-dollar revenue and you find most decline in SE Mich. Sort by percentage change, and you find huge increases in rural TOWNSHIP tax receipts. This augurs ill for SE Mich., where drastic loss of population (i.e., votes) reduces their power to claim outstate assets in pursuit of failed policies. What goes around . . .
Charles Skinner
Thu, 12/01/2011 - 2:22pm
Your previous article on this topic used the term "windfall" for the reduced taxes that property owners pay. And this Shadow Tax Cut bemoans the effect on gov't. But for every dollar in reduced tax income to the gov't entities the property owner has probably suffered more than a thousand dollar cut in their value. And woe be to the property owner who wants or has to sell. The property owner's loss is likely greater than the reduced value reflected in the taxes. Your perspective seems to just reflect the pain of gov't with little consideration of the much greater pain experienced by the property owner.
Thu, 12/01/2011 - 4:19pm
If you're going to reform the property tax system,which is expensive, and badly flawed, why not go all the way and junk the whole absurd and conflicted idea of assessed and taxable values? Go to a system based on building square footage. This could be handled by the existing and underemployed building departments and would allow cities, townships and counties to eliminate the all the assessment, equalization, appeals and tax tribunal functions and EXPENSES. This puts us in the sane situation where a 2000 SF home pays the same given tax as every other 2k SF home in that tax jurisdiction. This eliminates the stealth or "shadow" (your term) tax increases from imaginary and real appreciation and would require officials to go to the voters to increase the per SF rate if needed. Not allowing them to count on inflation to juice up tax coffers would be a huge break on local government growth and spending... or maybe this is the point of our current system?
Chuck Fellows
Fri, 12/02/2011 - 10:50am
Lots of really good ideas and suggestions from the readers! This state and its citizens could be real winners only if ...... Zealous adherence to ideology canceled the desire to listen and ability to use common sense. And that our elected representatives don't understand that they serve all the people in the state, not just the card carrying members of their political party.
Craig Ruff
Fri, 12/02/2011 - 11:07pm
Another great piece in Bridge magazine. The lead is how declines in property value (and property taxes) strap local governments and schools. Between '01 and '07, total property taxes went up 40% or $4 billion, while per capital income fell. Was it fair that local revenues increased that dramatically while residents' income fell? Did residents get $4 billion worth of improved services over those 6 years? Did you hear howls of protest from your local schools, governments, transportation agencies, and libraries when they were reaping 6-7% annual increases in revenue while residents' income was falling?