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Sterling Heights

October 25, 2013

City prepares for millage proposal vote

By Eric Czarnik
C & G Staff Writer

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A sign alerting visitors to the Nov. 5 millage proposal for police, fire and roads stands outside City Hall in Sterling Heights.

After months of debate, Sterling Heights residents will soon have their chance to approve or reject a millage proposal for police and fire services, and local street repairs.

Earlier this year, a City Council majority voted to put a 2.5-mill tax proposal on the ballot this Nov. 5.

The ballot question, which the city has dubbed the “Safe Streets Proposal,” would increase taxes by 1.7 mills for police and fire spending, as well as 0.8 mills for local street improvements.

If approved, the millage would last for six years, and it could raise $10.4 million in its first year. It would raise the average homeowner’s annual property taxes by $157, though officials say the end result would still bring the average tax bill 10.6 percent lower than in 2007.

City Manager Mark Vanderpool said that the city came to the conclusion of proposing a millage after years of cost cuts, staff reductions, employee concessions and the outsourcing and privatization of some police services.

“We have a long list,” Vanderpool said. “The millage was the last piece of the puzzle.”

Officials said overall spending is the lowest in 10 years, but previous spending cuts were not enough to overcome a six-year decline in property assessments following the collapse of the housing bubble several years ago.

Although property values are beginning to increase again, Budget and Finance Director Brian Baker said Proposal A limits the city’s ability to restore the revenue it used to take in.

“Even if property values go up 10-20 percent, the city can only capture the inflationary amount going forward, “ he said.

Police and fire

In terms of its effects, City Hall officials agree, a passed millage would preserve a status quo for safety services, which make up around 60 percent of the city’s general fund budget.

Officials said the positions of 45 police officers and 20 firefighters hang in the balance. A failed millage would also result in the complete closure of Fire Station No. 4 and the partial closure of Fire Station No. 5, according to the city.

Public safety employee wages have been a frequent topic of debate among millage critics during recent City Council meetings.

The city says the current pay range for police officers is $43,181 -$74,926, and the current range for firefighters is from $41,023-$72,954. During an Oct. 15 City Council meeting, some residents reported higher figures for command officers and leadership.

Resident Sadeer Farjo said police sergeants can make around $90,000, lieutenants can make almost $99,000 and captains can make around $106,400. In comparison, the average household income is around $57,000, he said.

Resident Joe Judnick said a fire captain can make $176,000, and fire sergeants can make around $100,000-$138,000.

Judnick said he opposes the current millage proposal, adding that the residents cannot afford any more taxes. He also doubts that the city would suffer a catastrophe from a millage proposal rejection.

“We will be as safe on Nov. 6 as we were on Nov. 5,” he said.

Vanderpool did not dispute a list of pay figures circulated by citizens but said those figures could not be accurately called salaries. He said some of the numbers “have been taken out of context” and were not reflective of what public safety workers generally make.

“Those individuals have retired,” he said. “So, once they retire, there is a one-time payout of any earned leave time that they have on the books. It happens only when employees retire, so it does skew pay in their final year in retirement.

“Furthermore, through concessions, the city has reduced the amount of one-time retirement payouts and the amounts that can be factored into pensions by 80 percent.”

The city says state law makes it impossible for the city to lawfully cut public safety wages and benefits, as those are determined by an arbitrator in collective bargaining. Layoffs are the only cost-cutting alternative, according to officials.

At the Oct. 15 council meeting, resident Sandra Emerick said the issue wasn’t about pensions or wages but about manpower. She said she didn’t want to see emergency response times rise from three minutes to 10.

“It’s common sense that when you are in distress, you only want the best,” she said.

Local streets

Officials also say the millage will help repair local streets before they break down at an exponential rate.

Citing 2012 figures, the city said 82 percent of city streets are fair, 11 percent are poor or failing, and 7 percent are good or excellent.

Without a millage, 2018 would find 31 percent of local streets to be poor or failing, according to city estimates. Under a funded millage, poor or failing roads would only make up an estimated 8 percent of the total in 2018, officials said.

At the Oct. 15 meeting, Judnick said he would’ve supported a tax increase for the roads. But he said he’d vote no on the whole proposal since he could not vote separately for the roads.

“It’s all or nothing,” he said.  

When asked why the city bundled the three issues together, Vanderpool said that a recent community survey found that residents prize all three services highly.

“We didn’t want to pit one against the others,” he said. “We really wanted to keep it simple. We didn’t want to confuse the matter. We could have divided up the measure in many different ways. ... That would’ve become convoluted.”

Vanderpool said whether the millage passes or fails, the city will remain financially sound. When asked whether the city would go back to the voters with a smaller millage if the November one fails, he said the city would begin executing its contingency plans “almost immediately.”

“Anything is possible, but what we know for certain … the city will have to continue cutting,” he said. “We will have no choice.”

Learn more about Sterling Heights at www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489.

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