Waterford Township will be asking voters to authorize a special assessment for police services not to exceed 1.95 mills during the Nov. 6 general election.
The special assessment, which would be levied for an indefinite period of time, is intended to restore police patrols to satisfactory levels, employ more detectives, reinstate the department’s Traffic Bureau, and restore the closed detention facility.
“The department has been decimated because it has the highest budget and it had to be cut, but we need more patrols on the streets,” said Supervisor Carl Solden. “Public safety is the most critical service we provide. We have to get back on track.”
Between 2008 and this year, $7.9 million has been lost in revenues — $2.4 in state shared revenues and $5.5 million in property taxes, officials said.
The last time the township asked the voters to give additional support to the police department was in 2010, when the electorate voted to override the state’s Headlee Amendment. Facing a $4 million deficit, and the Headlee Amendment override provided a buffer.
“It reduced the negative balance to $3 million simply to stabilize us,” said Police Chief Dan McCaw. “We didn’t want to ask for a millage at that time because we thought we’d get out of this and cut the budget by $2.6 million to help with the loss of revenues. We’ve done everything we can to try to manage within our budget and it’s been balanced every year through cuts and layoffs (in 2010), when 23 employees were laid off and 16 retired. We also got $500,000 in grants.”
In 2001, the department budgeted for 106 sworn officers; it currently employs 48.
If passed, the SAD would allow for 18 to 20 more police officers.
Township trustees Anthony Bartolotta and David Kramer opposed placing the special assessment proposal on the ballot.
“First of all, it isn’t subject to Headlee rollbacks, so there’s no reduction unless by the generosity of the township board to reduce it, but there’s no mandated reduction,” Kramer said. “There’s no sunset on the tax, so if voted in, it’s forever. Once a unit of government gets accustomed to that money, they won’t want to give it up.”
Unlike a normal millage, the special assessment can be readjusted annually since it requires approval at a set rate by the Board of Trustees every year following a public hearing.
“What’s nice about a special assessment is that, as the economy turns around and we don’t need the funding, then (the rate) can be lowered because every year it has to be approved after a public hearing,” McCaw said.
Solden added that the proposed special assessment isn’t necessarily a perpetual tax.
“People say this is ‘a forever tax,’ but there’s nothing forever,” he said. “They need to have trust in the township board. They can alter the 1.95 (mills). The number can go down if revenue streams go up.”
Bartolotta agrees with Kramer and is skeptical that the board would lower the rate — or not levy the special assessment at all.
“I don’t believe any government entity would give back tax money,” Bartolotta said. “I understand it must be reviewed every year, but it should have a sunset (date) on it.”
The SAD is expected to generate $3.59 million in the first year, if levied at its maximum voter-approved level.
A mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 of a property’s taxable value, which is generally equal to half the property’s market value. The owner of a township property with a $100,000 taxable value ($200,000 market value) would pay $195 in new property taxes in 2013 if the maximum 1.95-mill special assessment is levied.
“I have a problem with the department needing this much money,” Kramer said. “They have two millages and get $5.6 million from the general fund. In 2013, the general fund will be $2 million short and the passage of the police (special assessment) does nothing to relieve that.
“I also believe this is a circumvention of our charter that is limited to 10 mills,” Kramer added. “If the parks and rec millage passes, then they can’t ask for another police millage because it would exceed 10 mills. If this (special assessment) passes, that’s a 28 percent increase to police (funding), a terrific increase.”
Township Budget Director Derek Diederich said it’s the combined general fund, police fund and fire fund that will be facing a deficit of $1.7 million for 2013.
McCaw said that if the ballot proposal fails, the department will be forced to make more cuts, resulting in less staff, reduced services and longer response times.
“We’ve done our part and now ask the voters to approve the (special assessment) to hire back laid-off officers and put additional ones on the streets, invest more in crimes and motor carrier enforcement, open (the) records (bureau) five days a week, restore the detention facility, and lastly to bring in more detectives,” McCaw said.
Around 2003 the department employed 13 detectives; today, that number is four.
The special assessment would also be used to keep the township lockup open 24 hours a day.
“Right now we can’t put them in jail unless it’s on the day shift — otherwise we issue a citation and let them go,” McCaw said. “We can’t lock up for misdemeanors except drunk driving and domestic (assaults).”
Yet Bartolotta insists on looking for more ways to restructure the budget.
“If the (special assessment) doesn’t pass, we keep the status quo, but we must look at alternatives and make tough decisions like outsourcing dispatch to the OCSD (Oakland County Sheriff’s Department),” he said.
Solden said cost estimates for outsourcing fail to consider legacy, unemployment, and prior contractual costs, and there would also be a lack of control in rate increases.
“There’s so many moving parts, it’s hard to say what the gap would be — if there is a gap,” Diederich said “If pensions get adjusted, the costs would be more effective and the unions are being cooperative — they were (supportive of) part-time patrol.”