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Sterling Heights

September 11, 2013

City’s millage proposal publicity criticized

By Eric Czarnik
C & G Staff Writer

The upcoming public safety millage proposal is on many Sterling Heights residents’ minds, but a few critics recently condemned how the ballot question is being publicized.

During a Sept. 3 City Council meeting, City Manager Mark Vanderpool discussed the upcoming November ballot proposal that asks taxpayers to decide whether to pay 1.7 mills for public safety and 0.8 mills for local street improvements for six years. The millage aims to raise $10.4 million in its first year.

Vanderpool said the city has not seen much of an immediate rebound in tax revenues following the recession, and he said it needs the money to continue public safety operations as normal.

However, he said the city has a contingency plan in place if voters reject the proposal: road improvement delays, cutting 45 police officer jobs and cutting 20 firefighter jobs, as well as the full closure of Fire Station No. 4 and the partial closure of Fire Station No. 5.

“This contingency plan is necessary because there is not sufficient savings available from other departments,” Vanderpool said.

During the meeting, several residents spoke out against the millage proposal, and some residents criticized the official Sterling Heights quarterly magazine that was mailed to residents’ homes.

Resident Joyce Fitch mentioned the magazine, the official city website, and a brochure and their coverage of the ballot proposal. She asked the City Council who approved what she described as the “pro-millage promotion of this tax increase ballot question.”

“Where is the record of any such approval and/or direction to the city administration to create and carry out this process, using our tax dollars to promote a ballot question?” she said.

“That’s illegal. You should not be doing that. I’m surprised that you are not outraged at that.”

On the cover of the magazine’s fall issue is a letter signed by Mayor Richard Notte directed to residents that talks about the ballot proposal, which the magazine  has dubbed the “Safe Streets Proposal.”

“This fall, Sterling Heights residents will have a chance to shape the future of this city like never before,” the letter states. “On Tuesday, Nov. 5, voters will determine if the city should continue to delay necessary road improvements and cut vital services or recover a portion of lost revenue through a dedicated millage to preserve excellent police and fire services and improve neighborhood streets.”

Inside the magazine, several pages are devoted to discussing the proposal. The city says a successful millage would add $157 per year to the average homeowner’s taxes, though it adds that the effect would still result in the total tax bill, on average, being 10.6 percent lower than in 2007.

Sterling Heights City Attorney Jeffrey Bahorski told the Sentry he would need to further look into the election law in order to precisely respond to questions about the legality of the city’s millage proposal literature. He said counsel hasn’t asked him to follow up on it at this point.

“I don’t believe the resident was specific as to what they considered to be a violation,” Bahorski said. “Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think it’s a violation.”

At the meeting, Vanderpool defended the city’s literature content in the magazine and other materials, and said the city has tried to represent “both sides of the equation.”

“It is important that the city provide public information, and I emphasize public information versus promoting,” he said. “Nowhere do we say, ‘Vote yes. Vote no.’ It’s really up to the community to decide which position to take. Some may feel that a downsized police and fire department and the status quo with road funding is acceptable.”

Vanderpool said the fall edition of the Sterling Heights magazine was not a special edition but a regular quarterly issue. He said the current edition with the millage information was produced in-house and had no additional pages or costs.

Councilman Paul Smith called the magazine “out of line.” 

“We got the cover and the inside and the back of the cover, 10 pages inside, just out-and-out election propaganda in favor of the millage,” Smith said. “I think it’s entirely wrong. We hire the city manager to manage our city on the money that the citizens give him, and we don’t hire him to tell us how to vote.”

After the meeting, Sterling Heights Community Relations Director Steve Guitar said residents have the right to criticize the information campaign, but he disagrees completely with any assessment that it is propaganda or illegal.

“We have put out public information on the ballot issue, and I think it’s our job to provide fair and balanced information on the ramifications,” he said. “ We worked very hard to be impartial, and I think it’s nothing more than public information, so that voters can make an informed decision on Nov. 5.”

To see the official Sterling Heights magazine online, or for more about Sterling Heights, visit www.sterling-heights.net. Or call (586) 446-2489.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Eric Czarnik at eczarnik@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1058.