Bloomfield Township to put special assessment proposal on ballot

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 15, 2019


BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — And now it’s in the voters’ hands.

During a regularly scheduled meeting April 8, the Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees voted 5-2 to add language to the Aug. 6 ballot that proposes a 2.3-mill special assessment district touted as an effort to maintain the current level of public safety service. Trustees David Buckley and Dani Walsh dissented.

If approved, the tax of $2.30 per $1,000 of a home’s taxable value would be levied beginning in December, 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 proposal is the board’s solution to satisfying an annual shortfall of between $5 million and $7 million caused by the cost of other post-employment benefit obligations, or OPEBs. Until now, the township has gotten by with paying off the tab as the bill came due. But in 2017, Michigan law was amended to require local governments to be 40% funded for OPEB obligations within 30 years.

To close the OPEB funding gap, the township contracted Plante Moran to study the financial situation and come up with a solution. Among the suggestions were instituting a 1% administrative fee for covering the costs of operating the Treasury and Assessing departments, along with big cuts to the budget through the elimination of the Animal Welfare Division and hazardous waste disposal programs, to name a few.

But to get into the black, the township would need to dig even deeper, cutting response service at Fire Station 4 and 10 police positions.

Trustees Neal Barnett and Michael Shostack agreed with Supervisor Leo Savoie, Treasurer Brian Kepes and Clerk Janet Roncelli in assuming thet residents would rather pay more to maintain the current level of service than make substantial cuts.

Buckley and Walsh have 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.

“If there is going to be a tax increase, I think the ballot language should be very clear that this is not a public safety issue,” Walsh said during a March structural deficit study session. “As a salesperson, I get the spin that you’re trying to go with, because you want people to support it and everybody wants great public safety. But this is a retirement issue.”

Before the board even took on the issue during the April 8 meeting, Walsh moved to adjourn the meeting, supported by Buckley. The motion was opposed by the other five, and a presentation went on from Scott Patton of Plante Moran.

Patton, who was the representative from Plante Moran who took on the consulting task for the township, ran through his recommendations previously discussed to satisfy the deficit.

He noted that salaries and benefits were exempt from the analysis, leaving just programming up on the potential chopping block.

Asked whether he’s seen similar scenarios play out in other communities, Patton said a number of municipalities are currently struggling to meet retirement obligations. He added that of those that opted to scale back the budget to make ends meet — for instance, cuts to police or fire personnel —  there was often a noticeable sacrifice in the quality of service.

Walsh argued that more reductions could be made to township programming not associated with public safety, e.g., the township’s road division, Woodward Dream Cruise events, the gypsy moth program and more.

“It’s a whole lot of money we could’ve cut,” Walsh said. The SAD proposal does not include any budgetary cuts.

“Is it normal, as an expert, to make a presentation with lots of (budget cut) options, be backed up by a survey expert saying, ‘Hey, a lot of (residents) still want cuts’? Is it normal to have a board ignore all the experts and say, ‘We’re just going to approve the budget with some raises?’”

Buckley echoed her concerns and asked Patton what Plante Moran is seeing happen in other communities struggling with retirement obligations.

“It’s usually one of three things: increased revenues, which almost always require a public vote; the second is to reduce services, reduce costs; and the third way being a combination of the two,” Patton said. “In general, I wouldn’t say there isn’t any standard approach.”

Buckley argued that if an SAD is approved, cuts should also be made, including a 10% reduction to the salaries of Savoie, Roncelli and Kepes, along with removing municipal vehicle privileges. Township Attorney Derk Beckerleg said a compensation cut for elected officials would be illegal to instate during the course of their terms.

Walsh asked Patton about the number of employees on the township’s payroll in comparison to surrounding communities.

“Were we one of the highest, or were we one of the lowest?” she asked.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if you were higher,” Patton replied. “You have a senior center, you have several services that are nonmandated — a high level of service that’s offered.”

Roncelli jumped in, highlighting the ways that township services would suffer with cuts to programming or personnel.

“With all of these cuts, Scott, there’s a change to service, right?” she asked, to which Patton agreed.

“Letting go somebody in IT, somebody in ordinance, somebody in the road department affects police and fire and the repair work on their fleets. It affects work on all of our road department vehicles, because we have a road department. You wouldn’t have your roads plowed as soon as they are. We wouldn’t have roads patched, because you’d have to wait for Oakland County to do all of that. Those are important.”

The rest of the meeting, the trustees examined each of the cuts suggested by Plante Moran. When Shostack asked what would happen to the Animal Welfare Division building if the department were eliminated, Patton said the cost of either demolishing the building or repurposing it wasn’t included in his analysis.

“So we could rent it out for more income and lower taxes,” Walsh interjected.

“You’d have to renovate it first. There’s a lot of cages in there,” Roncelli said, noting that if Oakland County were to take over animal control for the township, the wait times would be considerably longer for carcass removal, like when deer are struck in roadways.

“If people look at the ramifications for the small amount of money that we’re talking about, animal control would not be 55% to 33% support for eliminating it,” said Savoie.

Buckley commented that he’d like to find a middle ground — making up 20% of the SAD price in budget cuts.

“At least I can look residents in the eye and say we did something,” he said.

Shostack later made a statement showing his support for the SAD proposal going on the ballot.

“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,” he said. “The question is, are we willing to pay for the high level of service we currently receive?”

He added that the cuts to non-public safety programming would save the median homeowner in the township $50.

“Is that worth it?” he asked. “I don’t know. We would need the voters to tell us.”