Grosse Pointe Farms to seek voter approval in November for roadwork millage

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 8, 2020

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GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Besides the presidential race, this November, Grosse Pointe Farms residents will be asked to consider a dedicated millage for road repair.

During a meeting Aug. 10 via Zoom, the Farms City Council voted unanimously in favor of ballot language requesting up to 2 mills annually for five years to do road repairs and related work, such as sidewalks, alleys and parking lots.

If approved by voters, the millage would increase the Farms tax rate from 14.95 mills to 16.95 mills starting in December 2020 and running through December 2024. It would raise $1,669,600 in the first year. Over the course of five years, assuming that the council retains the rate of 2 mills each year and taxable values increase by 1.5% annually, the road millage would raise more than $8.06 million in additional road funding.

For a homeowner with a house that has a market value of $400,000 and a taxable value of $200,000, the road millage would add $400 to the tax bill in the first year, or a little less than $34 per month.

City administrators said the amount of roadwork they’re doing now — while substantial — is no longer enough.

City Manager Shane Reeside said the city worked with its engineers at Hubbell, Roth & Clark Inc. to rate the condition of all its roads so they could determine the amount of work needed and the corresponding bond amount to request.

“We are now seeing deterioration of our overall road conditions. … We feel now we’re at a point where action is needed,” Reeside said.

At the end of the road construction season this year, the city’s engineers said the Farms will have an average PASER road rating of 3.6. In the PASER system, streets are evaluated on a scale of 1 to 10, with good meaning a rating of 8 to 10, fair meaning a rating of 5 to 7, and poor meaning a rating of 1 to 4.

During the five-year millage span, City Controller Debra Peck Lichtenberg said, the average Farms road rating is expected to increase from a PASER rating of 3.6 to one of 4.6. It might not sound like much, but she said that “is significant.”

Over the last five years, Peck Lichtenberg said, the Farms had spent about $2.1 million on road projects, or an average of more than $400,000 per year. She said the city anticipates budgeting approximately $500,000 each year over the next five years for roadwork, which would bolster millage funds.

Officials said they need to get started as soon as possible, in part to prevent further deterioration.

“We have concerns about the rising costs of construction and what putting off construction for future times may mean,” Peck Lichtenberg said. “Our goal really was to strike a balance (between) an acceptable level of cost to the taxpayers and an improved level of (road conditions). … We do feel this is the right time (to) ask for a dedicated road millage.”

By putting the question on the November ballot and collecting the first millage payment, if approved, in December, Peck said the city would be able to bid out 2021 road projects early to get more competitive prices, and the city would also be better able to budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year.

While the vote doesn’t reflect this, the council was divided about the millage.

City Councilman Lev Wood, who chairs the Budget and Audit Committee, said road funding and a possible millage is something they’ve been “discussing for quite some time.” He said they felt a 1.5-mill increase wouldn’t make enough of a dent in road conditions, while a 3-mill increase would be too much to ask of residents.

City Councilmen Joe Ricci and Neil Sroka, however, both said they would have preferred a 3-mill increase, given that the improvement in the city’s average PASER rating over five years just barely brings the Farms into the fair category.

“I think we’re kicking the can down the road,” Ricci said.

Sroka noted that the additional mill would improve the PASER rating by another 0.6, to 5.2.

“The reality is, these roads are only going to get worse,” Sroka said. “I think, honestly, we’ve got to do more, not less.”

City Councilwoman Beth Konrad-Wilberding said she would have preferred to see the city ask for 1.5 mills instead, given an impending sewer separation project, the pandemic and other expenses facing the Farms. In addition, she said 0.5 mills of debt service are going to be paid off by next year.

The upcoming sewer separation project will need to be funded by a bond and not by a millage, and the increased sewer bond debt will be absorbed by debt service coming off the city’s books in the near future, so Reeside said the retired debt won’t actually free up any capital for the Farms.

Konrad-Wilberding and City Councilman James Farquhar also felt that the council should have had a special meeting — possibly a work session — just to discuss the road millage. Mayor Louis Theros said they had already discussed road funding “at length in May” during the city’s budget hearing. Theros added that 2 mills is the maximum, and the council could levy a lower amount if members felt that would provide adequate funding. Konrad-Wilberding disagreed with that assertion.

“I was a lobbyist,” she said. “Once you approve language for a ballot proposal, there’s not a lot of discussion.”

A couple of residents offered their comments about the proposal before the council voted.

“I am very supportive of the millage increase,” Farms resident and business owner Edward Russell said. “This is something that needs to be done. … Putting it off is going to increase the cost of these improvements geometrically.”

Andrew Dervan didn’t support the idea of a 3-mill levy because the sewer separation project is “going to be very, very expensive.”

“I could not support 3 mills,” Dervan told the council. “That’s way too much money. … These are hard times.”

In a letter emailed to the city, resident James A. Kelly voiced support for a road millage, pointing out “several hefty bumps in Cloverly (Road)” between Ridge Road and Charlevoix Avenue as just one example of work that needs to be done. Kerby Road, home to both Farms City Hall and Kerby Elementary School, is another important thoroughfare in need of repairs, Kelly said.

“The condition of Kerby Road from Ridge Road to Mack (Avenue) is just plain lousy — nonstop bumps, lumps, jolts,” Kelly wrote.