West Oakland voters will not only select candidates for various federal, state, county, and local elected positions, and determine the outcome of several statewide ballot proposals during the Nov. 6 general election, but in some communities will also weigh in on various local ballot proposals. With so many contested races and state and local proposals on lakes area ballots, we’re beginning to publish our general election endorsements a bit earlier than we have in the past. Readers who are looking for advice on contested races and ballot questions will find additional endorsements in the Spinal Column Newsweekly in each weekly edition published through Wednesday, Oct. 31.
This week we turn our attention to a Waterford Township ballot question seeking authorization for a police department special assessment district (SAD).
Like all taxing authorities, Waterford has been hit hard by declining tax revenues due to plummeting property values. Township officials are asking for a unique approach to that situation, which is expected to continue for the next few years, by seeking voter approval of an SAD to support police services.
The proposal asks voters to authorize annual assessments of up to 1.95 mills to maintain, operate and equip the police department. If approved by voters and levied on the December 2012 tax bill at the 1.95-mill cap, the first assessment would generate $3.59 million for 2013 police operations.
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.
This novel approach has understandably caused some uneasiness, since voter approval would allow the township board to annually decide how much of a millage to collect through the SAD — with 1.95 mills being the maximum. The uneasiness is prompted by the lack of a defined period of time for this approach. Unlike a traditional millage proposal that includes an expiration date, this special assessment would continue until either township officials decline to levy it or voters are given the chance to eliminate it during a future election.
However, the special assessment approach has a benefit that a traditional millage can’t provide. Each year, the Waterford Township Board of Trustees would have to hold a public hearing to present a proposed assessment figure for the coming year. The board could seek to collect an assessment from zero to the 1.95-mill cap, based on department needs at that time and expected property tax revenues for the upcoming fiscal year. As the economy and property values improve, leading to higher property tax revenue, the annual assessment figure can be reduced to as low as zero. With a traditional millage, there’s really no flexibility in the amount levied, and the community automatically collects the maximum voter-approved millage.
We would have preferred that Waterford followed the lead of Commerce Township, which in August 2010 sought and received voters’ authorization for two public safety SADs that will remain in place for 10 years, not in perpetuity. But, as Waterford officials point out, the lack of a sunset date in the ballot language for the police special assessment doesn’t mean the assessment will be collected in perpetuity: “Nothing lasts forever,” as township officials have said.
The department would use the additional property tax revenue to put more officers on the street and improve service. In 2001, the department was budgeted for 106 police officers. Following staff cuts and retirements beginning in 2007-08, the department is now down to 48 officers. It has had to cut back records department operations from five to three days a week, and discontinued 24-hour-a-day access to the department lobby. The department has also gone from 13 detectives to just four, and eliminated its special operations unit. In addition, budget challenges prompting closure of the department’s lockup facility and inmate overcrowding at the Oakland County Jail has limited Waterford police’s arrest of minor misdemeanor offenders.
The police department and its employees have taken additional actions to stay within budget, including the unprecedented move among unionized officers and dispatchers to approve the use of part-time patrol officers and dispatchers who receive no benefits, as a way to bolster the police presence and service.
With approval of the special assessment ballot question, the department intends to expand records department hours, reopen the department’s detention facility, and hire up to 20 full-time officers and detectives.
Lastly, voters should remember that November 2010 approval of Headlee override requests for the township’s public safety departments merely allowed those departments to maintain staffing and service levels at that time, not to bring back laid-off staff or revive discontinued services.
We believe strongly that a community of about 70,000 people needs more than 48 officers and four detectives. Voters have a chance to enhance the boots on the ground and current level of services by voting YES on the SAD proposal, which we urge them to do.