Officials offer no predictions for public safety ballot proposal

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published November 2, 2016

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FRASER — On Nov. 8, Fraser residents will have the opportunity to vote for or against a public safety assessment millage.

The assessment can only be used for public safety expenses, in the form of personnel, equipment and vehicles for police, fire and ambulance service.

Ballot language states that the special assessment district, under provisions of Michigan Public Act 33 of 1951, is for the purpose of raising money for furnishing Department of Public Safety protection, including purchasing and housing equipment, and for operation of both. Each parcel of real property is subject to assessment in an annual amount of $5 per $1,000 of taxable value, which is estimated to raise approximately $1.9 million when first levied July 1, 2017.

One mill is $1 per $1,000 of taxable value. If taxable value is valued at $50,000, then the proposed net $2 translates into an increase of $100 per year, or 27 cents per day.

If the assessment passes, a number of areas would be affected over the next four years: replacing eight patrol vehicles, scheduled at the rate of two per year; replacing the city’s 1997 fire rescue/utility truck that is used for fire suppression and rescue attempts; replacing the EKG monitor in the ambulance; replacing the “Jaws of Life” with improved technology; replacing both 17-year-old fire and police dispatch consoles in the communications center; replacing the ambulance within three to four years; and hiring one additional paramedic.

City Manager Rich Haberman first proposed this 5-mill budget tax in April, while also proposing a 4-mill reduction in the general operating tax — all for a net increase of 1 mill.

Fraser City Council proposed a similar 5-mill tax, but with a 3-mill reduction decrease in general operating tax. The 2-mill net increase is what voters will decide.

“Given the importance of public safety in Fraser, why has this not been done before?” Haberman asked during the Oct. 13 city council meeting.

He answered his own question by saying that Fraser didn’t qualify for such an assessment due to a population of 15,000-plus residents in 2010. But in 2015 Plante Moran, the city’s accounting firm, said the city’s population dipped below that number and Fraser was eligible for such an assessment.

In addition, Headlee sets limits on taxes a city can assess. That’s done by limiting a number of city mills, even though it doesn’t take into account the amount each mill generates.

Fraser has reached a maximum number of mills, even though the amount of each mill is less than it was in the past. In 2008, 1 mill of tax generated $611,000. Currently, that same amount generates $380,000, or 38 percent less revenue.

Headlee limits this year’s increase in mill amount to 0.3 percent, or less than 1/5 of the cost increase. Mill increases are used to offset the reduced amount of a mill, but a city like Fraser can only cover normal cost increases for less than two years.

Thus, the only option is to increase revenue by increasing mill amounts.

Also, Haberman explained, even a slight increase in population could take Fraser over that 15,000 number and make the city once again ineligible for a public safety assessment option. Once in place, the option is permanent by law.

“I think it is very important that the public approve this measure,” Haberman recently said. “It has a lot to do with the fact that our public safety department has been financed and expenses have been paid.

“The environment and concept is changing, not only in the state but nationally. … That means more public safety expenses are coming local.”

Public Safety Director George Rouhib said that for years, all capital improvement equipment has been purchased with seized drug and gambling proceeds.

“The approval of PA 33 from the people will have a significant impact on public safety operations — specifically purchasing capital equipment for police, fire and EMS,” Rouhib said. “As of now, the city does not have the necessary capital funding to purchase essential equipment that will be needed in the future. For example, our fire division has a 1997 Ford KME rescue engine and a 1991 Ford Grumman.”

City officials decided to take it to the public during a hefty election year.

“City Council has the authority to impose a special assessment without a public vote, but statute provides they may submit it to electors for voting,” said City Attorney Tim Tomlinson, who added that it’s a policy issue more than a legal one.

Mayor Joe Nichols said the residents, through their votes, will tell the city what they want. He said he doesn’t want to be an elected official who will arbitrarily sign an increased millage or tax without public input.

“I’ve always respected the right the people have to vote,” Nichols said. “It’s one of your basic freedoms, the right to vote. I feel it’s important to let the people kind of tell you what they want.

“I’ve been vocal in saying Fraser needs a revenue increase. Fraser’s at a crossroads where certain services will become ineffective, and to what degree — that will be determined — if we don’t put our city in better position after the most recent economic collapse.”

After talking to residents about the assessment, he admits there’s been a “mixed review” in responses. Some citizens are OK with an increase and understand its importance, while others understand but can’t bear the grunt of additional expenses.

A low turnout of a handful of residents at an information meeting Oct. 25 added a bit more angst.

“I was concerned last night,” Nichols said Oct. 26. “I feel that those who just want to increase tax without the vote of the people — well, last night was a much different story. They got a very late start in promoting this. Not honestly a late start, but not an aggressive promotion.”

Councilman Michael Lesich said the assessment is a tough sell to many people, echoing similar concerns of Nichols. 

“People are somewhat reluctant,” Lesich said. “I’m not hearing unanimous support for sure, but I’ve had numerous conversations on social media with other people. … Especially with a ballot the size of a phone book, we are the last thing on the ballot. A lot of people don’t vote for (the last item on a ballot) because it’s the last thing.”

Nichols said that if the millage fails, council will have to roll up its sleeves and take a long hard look at every city aspect: unfunded pension liabilities, standardization of contracts, parks and recreation, library hours and staffing, etc.

 “If we want Fraser to again be what it was and be fiscally healthy and get tender loving care it needs, those things can’t be accomplished without revenue.”

Haberman clarified that the mill number at this point is speculative, based on anticipated revenues and expenses. If the measure fails, the decision falls into the hands of the seven city officials.

“It’s up to council if it fails,” Haberman said. “It’s clearly a budget issue and a matter of whether there’s going to be other increases, or if council is going to be looking to cut other services.”

For more information on the ballot measure and for voting precincts, visit www.micityoffraser.com.

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