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.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Jeff S.
Mon, 10/28/2013 - 3:55pm
Of course, anybody who watches Troy City Council meetings regularly recognizes Dan Brake. He's the guy who addresses the council during every meeting and accuses them of BREAKING THE LAW because they are maintaining a healthy fund balance. Apparently, Mr. Brake doesn't like the city's miserly spending and AAA bond rating.
John S.
Tue, 10/29/2013 - 12:03pm
Democracy is at work. It's not tidy. It's not always fun. Brake will have his say. Some of what he says may be the truth. Some of the council members will listen carefully to him; others will not, refusing to acknowledge that he has anything important to say. If there's a council vote on spending the $25 million, the majority will carry the day. If Brake's on the losing side, he can continue to voice his opinions, try to change the composition of the council at the next election, or move to another community more to his liking.
Mike R
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 2:01pm
Farmington Public Schools is experiencing remarkably similar opposition to a school bond proposal on next week's ballot. The opposition is led by an organization that calls itself Farmington Kids 1st that appears to be a front for a Tea Party affiliated group. The backing group has apparently provided enough financial support to pay for a glossy, expensive mailer and at least two rounds of anonymous robo-calls (I use the words "appears to be" and "apparently" because Farmington Kids 1st has so far refused to disclose the source(s) of its funds). The language they use includes the same accusations quoted in this article of a "slush fund" that will be generated if the bonds pass and a lack of "transparency" by the School Board and administration. While there are legitimate community opposition to the bond proposal and many serious issues to debate, clearly there is also outside influence, backing, and money from one or more organizations with a larger agenda.
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 7:47pm
The problem with people like Dan Brake and the group he hangs with, including Janice Daniels, Bob Gosselin, Martin Howrylak and Debra DeBacker, is that they have absolutely no scruples or moral compass when it comes to their politics. They have, without reservation, lied, cheated and b.s.ed their way into the conversation to suit their own aims and agendas, truth and honesty be damned. Gosselin is the ringleader, and his record of lying, hypocrisy and low morals (including his arrests for solicitation) mark him as a man without a conscience or honest bone in his body. Those of us who have vigorously opposed these people all know this, and we refuse to let this grotesque behavior go unchallenged. We may not always win, but we will never stop fighting them.
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 8:49pm
Farmington better beware, that sounds very similar to what Troy has experienced over the last several years. Dan Brake's dogmatic partisanship comes from Troy's crazy political ringleader Bob Gosselin. The subversive games (such as the 3 fake library proposals) prevent quality decision making and amount to election tampering. They would have spent our fund balance down and threatened our bond rating. These aren't fiscal conservatives. I watch Dan Brake make a fool of himself meeting after meeting. He's a worthless gadfly who needs to just stop. He, gosselin and Doug Tietz cost Troy taxpayers 50k in a special election and wasted the attorney general's office time last winter in his effort to force a special election. Add to this mess our awkward and odd state rep Martin Howrylak and his dear old Dad, Frank. They pride themselves on bringing Hurricane Janice to the mayoral position. I'm sick of these guys making issues where none should exist.
Mon, 11/04/2013 - 10:49pm
I just wish there had been room in the article to point out that Dane Slater was photographed in the very same Troy Community Center that he and three others on council voted to close onJuly 1, 2011 because there was no money to keep it open. Then someone pointed out that the Center was already paid for and covered its operating expenses with the user fees it charges, SO THERE WAS NO MONEY TO SAVE! Council was caught in their extortion attempt and had to rescind their order to close! Then, come the close of the year, auditors reported the city pocketed a profit of $6.4 million in the year when there was no money! And there also wasn't room for the photo of the current sign in the front of the so-called Troy Transit Center announcing that the center will open in 2014, even though our elected city leaders are still insisting that the center is "on schedule". Anyone Googling "Troy Transit Center" will find a dozen quotes by our city's elected and appointed leaders declaring that the center will be opening in early September 2013. So much for truth in government. Otherwise a great article, Nancy, it does capture the back-and-forth in Troy government of the last few years! Regards, Dan Brake
Sun, 11/24/2013 - 11:02am
See Ronald Libby's new Tea Party book, "Purging the Republican Party: Tea Party Campaigns and Elections." It is published by Lexington Books and will be released November 2013.9780739187630_fc