Bloomfield Township proposes police and fire special assessment district

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 23, 2019

 Response service from Bloomfield Township Fire Department Station 4 is one of the cuts suggested by consultants to fund retiree benefit liabilities if a tax increase isn’t approved.

Response service from Bloomfield Township Fire Department Station 4 is one of the cuts suggested by consultants to fund retiree benefit liabilities if a tax increase isn’t approved.

File photo by Deb Jacques

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BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — Voters will have the chance to approve or scrap a 2.3-mill special assessment district plan that would bring extra money into the township’s coffers to fund police and fire services in the face of the growing cost of post-employment benefit obligations.

If approved, the tax of $2.30 per $1,000 of a home’s taxable value would be levied beginning in December and expiring in 2033. It would collect $9,041,317 in its first year and would replace an expiring general fund levy of 1.25 mills that would not be renewed if the SAD is passed. That amounts to an overall net increase of 1.05 mills, bringing the township’s millage rate to 10.636 from 9.586. The increase would come out to around $226 each year for a home with a taxable value of just over $215,000.

The SAD should fill in a $5 million to $7 million annual shortfall to fund other post-employment benefits, or OPEBs. Until 2017, municipalities could pay for post-employment benefits as they came due. But a legislation change now requires local governments to be 40% funded for those obligations within 30 years.

It’s being touted as a public safety effort because, in order to close the funding gap, consultants at Plante Moran said major cuts would need to be made to services, since those departments generally cost the most to operate and have higher personnel numbers.

Without an SAD, consultants suggested eliminating the Animal Welfare Division and hazardous waste disposal programs. To really get back into the black, however, public safety would need to take a hit, likely with a cutoff of response service at Fire Station 4, along with 10 police positions.

In deciding whether to put the SAD to a vote next month, the Board of Trustees argued whether residents would want to pay more for city services or make sacrifices to save money.

Trustees Neal Barnett and Michael Shostack, Supervisor Leo Savoie, Treasurer Brian Kepes and Clerk Janet Roncelli voted to put the proposal on the ballot, with the mindset that residents would rather pay more to maintain the current level of service.

But Trustees David Buckley and Dani Walsh argued that the SAD is being wrongly marketed as a police and fire millage to garner support from residents, when the reality is that the township is looking to collect money to satisfy OPEB liabilities.

“As I see it, there’s no path to cut our way to $4 million to $5 million without making major cuts to the budget, which would have to include police and fire,” Shostack said in April. “The question is, are we willing to pay for the high level of service we currently receive?”

Sue Bixler is willing. On July 1, Bixler was having work done on her Gilbert Lake Estates home’s duct system when a fire accidentally broke out. She said the house quickly filled with smoke and she immediately called 911 for help.

“As I was hanging up the phone, I could hear the sirens,” she said of the Bloomfield Township Fire Department’s response. “It took them probably 10 minutes to get the fire out, though it felt like an hour to me. They were so professional and quick, and I’m so thankful. If we didn’t have the level of service we have here, I wouldn’t have a house right now. That’s worth $200 a year to me.”

Asked if she believed the SAD proposal was being improperly marketed, Bixler said she did not. She likened the OPEB obligation situation to paying a bill in installments over time, then suddenly being told the debt needs to be paid in full.

“We used to put a small amount in (to OPEBs) and now we have to pay a larger amount. And that money has to come from somewhere,” she said.

But not all residents agree. Like MaryAlice LeDuc, who is a member of a committee to campaign against the SAD. In a press release, she explained that the group doesn’t believe most residents would support a tax increase without notable cuts.

“In a survey conducted in January 2019, 83% of Bloomfield Township residents said they wanted some sort of budget cuts, yet five of the seven elected officials voted to put a 2.3 mills special assessment district SAD on the ballot (without) any cuts,” she stated in the release.

The survey of 400 responses polled residents on their knowledge of the OPEB shortfall and measured favor for a variety of different solutions. About 28% of respondents said they would prefer budget cuts to satisfy the debt, and around 8% said they would rather increase taxes. Nearly 55% of respondents said they thought a combination of cuts and tax increases would be the best bet.

And as far as specific cuts were concerned, residents showed an interest in cutting or eliminating many of the non-public safety service departments, like the Animal Welfare Division, in-house assessing, community programming like Woodward Dream Cruise festivities, and household hazardous waste disposal and gypsy moth control.

Residents showed a slight lean in favor of cutting fire response from Station 4, and an 80% opposition to reducing 10 police positions.

The No SAD Committee’s suggestions are to reduce employee benefits in health care and 401(a) plans, outsourcing some service to the county, reducing spending in big-ticket departments like roads and public safety, and stressing competitive bidding for contracts — an effort that township officials insist is already in place.

But cuts that don’t include police and fire won’t be enough to close the OPEB funding gap, according to Scott Patton, of Plante Moran. At a board meeting April 8, Patton told trustees that a cost savings substantial enough to bring coffers into the black would likely have to impact the quality of services.

For more information on the SAD proposal, including ballot language, visit the Government tab on the Bloomfield Township website, bloomfieldtwp.org. Residents can also attend an informational town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 31, at Bloomfield Township Hall, 4200 Telegraph Road in Bloomfield Township. For more on its opposition, visit www.no-sad.com.

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