Fire millage renewal wins voter approval

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published August 13, 2014

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Voters in Macomb Township supported the renewal of their Fire Department’s operating millage by nearly a 3-1 majority on Aug. 5.

The proposal to continue the department’s funding source for another decade was the only question on the primary election ballot specific to Macomb Township. Of the 9,500 voters who made it to the polls, 6,889 — or about 72.5 percent — voted in favor of the fire millage renewal, while the other 2,611 — or about 27.5 percent — voted against it.

Fire Chief Robert Phillips was pleased to see that so many township residents were willing to commit their tax dollars to the Fire Department.

“I think this shows that we have tremendous support from the community,” he said, “as an overwhelming majority of our residents voted in favor of this millage. We’re grateful for their support, and we will continue to serve the residents as our services are needed.”

Township Clerk Michael Koehs added that he was “pleasantly surprised” that the millage proposal won over as many voters as it did. He noted, however, that the poor weather on Election Day “put a damper on things” and likely contributed to the lower-than-average number of voters who made it out to the polls.

Overall voter turnout in Macomb Township came in at around 17.4 percent, just above the Macomb County average of 17 percent.

The new fire millage will run for a 10-year period from March 20, 2015, through March 19, 2025. It authorizes township officials to levy up to 2 mills for the Fire Department’s equipment and operations, but it’s a rate that they have kept locked at 1.0588 mills for the last few years.

The department has four stations throughout the township and utilizes a system of paid on-call firefighters. It currently employs about 75 part-time firefighters and nine full-time officers.

Koehs explained that if the millage proposal had failed, township officials could have brought it back on the ballot for the general election in November. He believes, though, that most township voters were well aware of the fact that this proposal was merely an extension of the existing millage, rather than a millage increase.

“We all want our homes protected and someone to answer the phone when we call 911,” the clerk said. “I think people understood that this millage is our primary funding source for the Fire Department.”

Phillips pointed out that the department received only a handful of phone calls from residents seeking clarification of what the proposal was all about. And although township officials may have found themselves in a very difficult situation if the millage had failed, he said that the nearly 28 percent of residents voting against it was not unexpected.

“The language was very clearly written on the ballot, so I don’t think there was any problem with (people misinterpreting it),” Phillips contended. “But certainly there’s always a small percentage of people who have a strong anti-tax attitude when it comes to anything related to government functions.”

Koehs estimated that the current fire millage structure has been in place for at least 18 years, but he noted that township residents have been paying some level of taxes ever since the Fire Department was established in the 1950s.

In 2010, the Macomb Township Board of Trustees voted to lower the department’s millage rate by 0.1912 mills, from 1.25 mills to its existing rate. At the same time, the board essentially moved those funds over to the township’s police services, increasing its millage rate to the Macomb County Sheriff’s Department by nearly the same amount. According to Koehs, this change allowed the township to add two more deputies out of the Sheriff’s Department’s Macomb Township substation.

While the township board has had to dip into the Fire Department’s fund balance to cover its expenses each year since then, Phillips insisted that this decrease in funding has not negatively impacted its day-to-day operations.

But the chief also made it clear that the Fire Department cannot keep pulling money from its rainy day fund over the long haul. As recently as the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year, the department had a fund balance of nearly $8.3 million. If the $1.5 million fire budget shortfall projected for 2014-15 holds true, that sum will drop below $5.9 million by next summer.

“We have to figure out going forward how we’re going to address our fund balance situation, but that’s something that the board ultimately has to decide on,” Phillips said. “We’re working on a list of (new equipment) that we’re going to need, but we were waiting for this vote to happen before we looked into any big purchases.”

Phillips added that his department’s most pressing concern is one of its small rescue trucks, which is 12 years old and will need to be replaced in the near future.

Koehs indicated that he and the other board members are well aware of what’s happening with the Fire Department’s budget. He pointed out that in addition to the need for new equipment, the number of 911 calls that the department receives has gone up every year as Macomb Township’s population continues to increase.

Still, he stressed that even though the board has the authority to nearly double the township’s fire millage rate, they do not want to set it any higher than they absolutely need it.

“I think about our fire millage rate every time I look at the budget, but we’re not worried about it yet,” Koehs said. “Nobody has hit the panic button at this point. But if the chief comes to us next year saying that he needs four new (fire) engines, then we might have to think about doing something. If we do decide to increase the millage rate, though, people can rest assured that we won’t raise it to the full 2 mills overnight.”