Millage to maintain police, fire staffing

Same levy will bring in less money, officials say

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 24, 2013

On the ballot this August, voters will be asked to renew the police and fire millage, a 2 mill levy expected to bring in $2.65 million in its first year of collection.

Acting City Manager Mike Smith said the millage was first approved 10 years ago in an effort to maintain certain staffing levels in the Police and Fire departments.

“We realize now those were good times,” Smith said. “That additional funding that we get from that millage is more important than ever. Even with that money, obviously, budgets are tight.”

The City Proposal 1 on the Aug. 6 ballot asks whether the city charter should be amended to authorize the levy and collection of a 2 mill levy for three years starting July 1, 2014. It further states that the money is to be used “exclusively” for the police and fire department operations and guarantees staffing levels of 90 personnel in the Police Department and 50 personnel in the Fire Department.

“If we did not have the benefit of those additional funds, it would be impossible to keep staffing levels where they are today,” Smith said. “If we had to suffer a $3 million loss, that would have to come out of the Police and Fire departments.”

Smith said the levy has been 2 mills only for the past two years, but even with the increased rate, the city is collecting less money from the levy than it did in the past because of declining property values. In fiscal year 2008, the millage rate was 1.56 mills and brought in about $3 million. The 2013 levy of 2 mills brought in $2.66 million for the operations of the two departments.

“Here we are five years later and we’re bringing in less money with it,” Smith said.

The millage is not used to pay for pension obligations for police and firefighters; that is paid through a separate levy.

“This is the fourth time it will be voted upon,” said Mayor Kip Walby. “The economy is improving; however, we still had declines — especially in our commercial property values — so our property values are down from the last time … we had this millage vote.”

Smith said the total operating budget for just the Police Department is $13.5 million, so the millage pays for only a portion of that. Spending in the department didn’t automatically increase when the millage was first approved; instead, the budget would have had to be reduced if it hadn’t passed.

“If you cut out $2.7 million, the only place we have to cut to make that up somewhere will, in some cases, be in that headcount,” Walby said. “It’s a significant headcount and all departments, probably, would be affected and it would hurt our community.”

A vocal opponent of the police and fire millage, however, said she dislikes the “scare tactics” used.

“It wasn’t about police and fire; it’s an accounting trick,” said Erin Stahl, a candidate for City Council who has spoken vehemently against the millage renewal.

Stahl said she believes that since the money raised from the millage is put into the general fund, it is just used to balance the budget for all departments, not just for the Police and Fire departments.

“To turn around now, they can’t do it. They would be in so much financial trouble and legal trouble that they have to continue saying it’s for police and fire. That’s the scare tactic that I do not like,” she said.

Stahl said City Council could balance the budget without the extra millage for those two departments, although she acknowledges “it’d be a little bit more challenging.”

“City Council, as a steward and watching out for the security of our city, they need to first and foremost … make sure we’re safe,” Stahl said. “Make sure they have the funding for the police and fire and then cut in other (departments).

“Because we give them more money, they just keep spending and spending and spending.”

If the proposal fails this year, Smith said City Council would have some decisions to make for the 2014-15 budget.

They could decide to put the issue before voters at another election or they could decide that “the people have spoken and so we’re going to not collect that money,” which he said could mean that the operating budget for the Police and Fire departments could be reduced or council could dip into the rainy day fund to make up the difference.

“The people of the city of St. Clair Shores have been very supportive of the Police Department, the Fire Department over the years,” he said.