St. Clair Shores asking voters to help pay for police, fire and roads

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 19, 2019

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — St. Clair Shores voters have two millage proposals to consider on the Aug. 6 ballot, one to help pay for road construction and the other to help pay for the Police and Fire departments.

The Police and Fire millage has been put before voters every few years since 2003. It originally guaranteed specific staffing levels if it was passed, but state law now prohibits such guarantees.

However, that doesn’t mean that staffing guarantees aren’t still in place, City Manager Mike Smith explained at a town hall meeting July 16.

“We still have a guarantee, but now we’ve done it contractually with the Police and Fire departments. As long as we collect this millage, we will meet those minimums,” he said.

There is an agreement to keep 89 personnel in the Police Department and 50 members of the Fire Department currently in place.

The proposal being put before voters this year is a renewal of the millage passed in 2016. Voters approved a 5 mill levy at that time, but because of Headlee rollbacks, the amount that voters are being asked to approve in 2019 is 4.8486 mills.

The Headlee Amendment, first passed in Michigan in 1978, prevents millage rates from increasing each year higher than the rate of inflation or 5% each year, whichever is lower. It also requires local units of government to reduce the millage rate levied when annual growth on existing property is greater than the rate of inflation.

Smith said that the city will collect approximately $7.5 million from that levy this year. If the renewal millage passes to replace the expiring millage, it is expected to produce $7.28 million in revenue in its first year, beginning July 1, 2020.

When voters first approved the police and fire millage in 2003, the value of one mill was $1.69 million. It was down to $1.38 million in 2016, but St. Clair Shores’ current taxable values put one mill at $1.596 million.

Smith said that he is often asked how residents can know that the money being collected is going to the Police and Fire departments. He said that the numbers tell the story. For the Police Department alone, he explained, the 2019-20 fiscal year budget is $11 million. The Fire Department’s budget for the same year is about $6.5 million, “and this is a year when we’re not buying one of those large pieces of equipment” like a fire truck or ambulance.

Because the city spends about $18 million each year on the two departments and the millage only brings in about $7.5 million, the city’s general fund absorbs the other $10 million in expense.

“Clearly, the millage money is going to Police and Fire. If we didn’t have that money, we have a huge shortfall,” he said.

The streets millage proposal on the ballot has also been before voters before, but because of the housing market crash in 2008, “once it went down, it could only come back the rate of inflation or 5%, whichever is lower,” Smith explained.

Today, St. Clair Shores collects less in revenue from the streets millage than it did in 2008-09, but during the same time, the cost of concrete has risen nearly 48%. The cost of labor has also escalated.

Smith said that when City Council and city administrators took a look at the aging infrastructure of St. Clair Shores, they decided to ask residents for an increase in the streets millage to take better care of the city’s roads.

The proposal before voters is whether to approve a five-year levy of 1.75 mills, which is estimated to produce $2.6 million in revenue in its first year, beginning July 1, 2020, and would be used for residential street repairs, street construction, street lighting and related sewer repairs and construction. It goes into a dedicated fund and replaces a 1.196 mill levy adopted in 2014.

The city’s engineering firm has undertaken a survey to rate every street in the city with the goal of preventing streets rated in the middle from degrading into the lowest level of streets. That has meant dedicating more money to crack sealing and other repairs instead of just reconstruction of crumbling roads.

“This year, we’ve got a whole new problem,” he said. “The water isn’t just coming from the sky. Water’s actually coming from Lake St. Clair onto the roads.”

Smith said that it remains to be seen what damage that water will cause to the roads long-term, but he anticipates that it will necessitate more road work in the future.

The city began using the Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating (PASER) system more than two years ago and plans to reevaluate the roads every five years.

“When it comes to the street millage, we recognize the fact that we have an issue with our streets,” Smith said. “We’re losing ground on the maintenance of those roads and if we don’t have the money to do that, we’re going to continue to lose ground.”

Both proposals will be on the Aug. 6 primary election ballot.

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