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Increased police, fire millage to be on Aug. ballot

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published March 23, 2016

ST. CLAIR SHORES — Although residents have approved a similar millage every few years since 2003, the proposal facing St. Clair Shores this August will have a few notable changes: namely, a higher millage rate and a lack of a guarantee of staffing levels in the ballot language.

The proposed language being put before voters Aug. 2 will call for up to 5 mills to be levied on residents for the next three years, beginning in 2017, to pay for police and fire operations in the city, an increase from the previous 2 mills levied.

Currently, a resident with a home with a market value of $100,000 pays $100 on the 2 mills levied. The increased millage rate of 5 mills would cost the same homeowner $250, according to City Assessor Teri Socia. 

City Manager Michael Smith explained that because of the decrease in property values, the value of each mill has decreased. The city has to increase the amount of mills collected to try and recoup some of that loss. The increased rate would bring in about $4.1 million more than the 2 mills currently being collected, but would still likely result in lower tax bills than residents paid in 2008.

“The bottom line is, our revenues just can’t keep pace with the expenditures,” Smith said. “When our voters first passed this millage in 2003, the value of a mill was $1.69 million. Today, the value of a mill is $1.38 million.”

Since the peak housing values in 2008, Smith said, the value of a mill has decreased by about $600,000.

The state also passed legislation in 2011 that prohibits language relating to staffing levels from being put in ballot language. Whereas the city was able to insert the language in the proposal the last time the issue was before voters because it was a simple renewal with no changes, now with changes to the millage rate, it is an entirely new proposal — according to the state — being put before voters.

At the same time, however, city officials say they still intend to maintain the staffing levels previously called for in the prior millage approvals. To do so, City Council approved a “memorandum of understanding” with each of the three bargaining groups that make up the Police and Fire departments that will still dictate that staffing levels remain the same: 50 at the Fire Department and 89 in the Police Department.

The Police Department’s staffing level was previously at 90, but with the outsourcing of the animal control duties to Macomb County Animal Control, that led to the elimination of that position within the department.

The memorandum of understanding binds the city, through the contracts, to the guaranteed levels, Smith said — it just won’t be in the ballot language.

“That was the cornerstone of this millage in 2003, and we wanted to maintain that going forward,” he said.

Resident Jim Goodfellow told City Council that increasing the millage rate from 2 to 5 mills is too large of an increase for residents at once. He suggested increasing the rate to 4 mills and increasing it again later once residents are used to the new rate.

But resident and former council member Erin Stahl said that she believes the millage is not necessary to maintain the city’s Police and Fire departments.

“The millage is not necessary,” she said at the March 7 City Council meeting. “It gets filtered into the general fund. It (police and fire services) is already paid for. You already budget for it. No one needs to be in fear that it won’t be paid for.”

“We don’t ask for this increase lightly,” Smith said. “If we simply requested a renewal of 2 mills, we would exhaust our current fund balance in just over two years.”

Councilman John Caron pointed out that, even when ambulance fees, police revenue, grants and other fees are added in, the revenue available for the two departments is about $13.3 million and expenses are about $16.5 million. The amount of revenue that the millage used to bring in, with taxes and fees, was $20.9 million.

That, he said, is what the additional mills are trying to cover. With promised wage increases and other increasing expenses, however, “This is always going to be a challenge, every year.”

“We’re, after a year, going to be right behind the eight ball again,” agreed Mayor Kip Walby. “Even though it sounds like we’re going to be flush for money, that’s not the case.”

“The budget is $16.5 million; we’re only bringing in $6.5 million. Of course it’s going in to support police and fire,” explained Councilman Peter Rubino. “It’s only part of it, but it’s still a big chunk of money. 

“It’s only paying a small portion of that budget for police and fire.”