Madison Heights millage increase proposal added to November ballot

Measure would boost public safety services, quality-of-life programs

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published June 27, 2019


MADISON HEIGHTS — During the general election Nov. 5, there will be a proposal on the ballot asking residents to approve a general charter millage increase.

If approved, the millage will help bolster public safety services in the city by hiring additional personnel in police, fire and emergency medical services. The millage will also improve quality-of-life programs such as the library, parks, recreation, economic development and downtown development.

For the average household in Madison Heights, with a taxable value of $38,020, the millage increase would cost an additional $130 per year.

“For an average cost of less than 36 cents per day per household, we can make sure we live in a safe city with community features that reflect our daily lifestyle,” said Madison Heights City Manager Melissa Marsh.

The ballot proposal asks voters to approve increasing the city charter for general budget purposes from 10 mills to 16 mills. But due to the consolidation of other millages, this is only a net increase of 3.364 mills. Four millages will be consolidated into the one charter millage. Two of them — the library millage and the millage restoration millage — are expiring in 2020.  

The Madison Heights City Council approved the addition of the proposal to the ballot at its regular meeting June 24. The tentative tagline for the proposal is “Quality City for a Quality Life.”

Voting in favor of adding the millage increase proposal to the November ballot were Mayor Brian Hartwell and City Council members David Soltis, Margene Scott, Roslyn Grafstein and Bob Gettings. Voting against adding the proposal to the ballot were City Council member Robert Corbett and Mayor Pro Tem Mark Bliss.

Following the meeting, the city manager explained how the proposal came about.

“Starting last fall, I led staff and City Council through an extensive planning process. Over the course of four public meetings, we visualized what the future of Madison Heights could look like,” Marsh said. “From that vision, we worked backward to develop steps to achieve the vision of Madison Heights as a vibrant, fiscally sound city that is competitive with our neighboring communities in retaining and attracting residents and businesses, by providing high-quality services including public safety and quality-of-life programs.”

She said that one of the most important steps was to develop a ballot proposal that would help the city fund these items. While the local economy has improved since the Great Recession, and while its long-term forecasting has been mostly positive, the city continues to struggle financially.

More than 61% of its revenue comes from property taxes paid by residents and businesses in the city. The city lost 35.2% of its taxable value during the recession.

When the economy began to recover, the city’s taxable value was only allowed to grow back at the rate of inflation, regardless of how much property values increased. In years when the city’s values outpaced the rate of inflation, the city has been forced to roll back its tax millage.

This is due to the interaction between the Headlee Amendment and Proposal A — two state policies that together sharply limit what the city can collect from its taxable properties to 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.  

The city manager said that due to the recession and the cap on the millage, the city will not return to 2006 levels of funding until 2038 — and that’s assuming that there are no more economic downturns, which she said is “unrealistic.” It also does not account for future inflation.

“This prevents the city from addressing the items that were reduced from the budget during the recession such as building and equipment maintenance, programming for library and parks, or restoring personnel such as police and fire,” Marsh said.

To further put things in perspective, in 2008, the city’s taxable value was $1.2 billion, which generated $1.2 million per each 1 mill of taxes. But by 2013, the taxable value had dropped by 35% to $780,000 for 1 mill of taxes.

The city responded to this shortfall by eliminating 47 positions throughout the city. This was in addition to the 31 positions that had been eliminated since 1997. The majority of infrastructure and equipment maintenance was deferred, except in emergency situations.

The city’s employees have made numerous concessions, and many services have been outsourced across all service areas. In the same period of time, service demands have actually increased, while staffing levels were being reduced. For example, calls for emergency services increased 41.9%, while fire and EMS staff was reduced by 16%.

“The city simply cannot continue in this direction,” Marsh said. “We must actively pursue the vision of what Madison Heights should be, and this millage is a key component of how we get there.”

In addition to adding more firefighter paramedics, police officers and emergency dispatchers, the city would also use the millage to address critical capital assets, including infrastructure, equipment and vehicle needs.

And where quality of life is concerned, ideas include improving the city’s parks system with updated play structures, a splash pad, walking trails, trees, special events and more. The millage would also fund economic and downtown development initiatives.

Madison Heights Fire Chief Gregory Lelito said that the addition of three new firefighter paramedics would immediately increase the average daily staffing level, which in turn would decrease how often the fire engine and ambulance at Fire Station No. 2 are left unstaffed. The vehicles at Fire Station No. 2 are left unstaffed when the daily staffing level falls below eight firefighters.

In 2018, the average daily staffing level was 6.5 firefighters per day. The fire chief explained that by staffing all frontline vehicles, emergency response times will be reduced across the city.

“This will also allow us to address deferred capital assets such as equipment, vehicles and buildings, which we have not been able to properly maintain due to lack of funding,” Lelito said.

Following the meeting, Corbett explained why he voted against the proposal.

“In my opinion, 6 mills is a considerable quantity of debt to saddle taxpayers with. It returns taxes to 2010 levels despite the fact that many residents are not making nearly the same amount of money as they did prior to the start of the Great Recession,” Corbett said. “Proportionally, it’s going to be an even heavier tax burden on families and businesses than at any time in the last 40 years. Worse still, in my viewpoint, is the fact that this proposal will embed 6 more mills of taxes permanently into the city charter, making Madison Heights residents and businesses among the most heavily taxed in Oakland County.”   

In the coming weeks and months, the city of Madison Heights will be announcing the dates and times for multiple public meetings about the millage, including several that will be held online. The city manager is also offering to meet with any neighborhood groups or committees that are interested in learning more. To reach the City Manager’s Office, call (248) 583-0829.