A tale of 2 cities’ taxes

Griggs Street, Rochester

Rochester and Rochester Hills are two cities with plenty to brag about. But how to differentiate the two to prospective home-buyers?

Printed material that surfaced during a millage campaign last year, which compared tax rates among the two cities, rubbed some in Rochester the wrong way. At the request of city council, Rochester’s administration recently took a look at the cost to homeowners of “essential” city services.

In a straight tax-rate comparison, Rochester Hills has traditionally levied a lower millage. But the report found that the city of Rochester provides defined “essential” services, including water and trash removal, at a lower price.

“The first question the city administration had to deal with … was what are considered essential services,” said Rochester City Manager Jaymes Vettraino. “I think we’ve picked the ones most everybody would agree to.”

The report included all services covered under the two cities’ general millages, plus the cost of water, sewer and sanitation. When the costs of these services were converted to a millage, Vettraino calculated Rochester’s effective cost to residents at 18.74 mills. He put Rochester Hills at 21.85 mills.

The two communities have different water sources and, therefore, different costs. Rochester includes the cost of trash removal in its general millage, while Rochester Hills residents pay a private hauler.

Rochester Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Cuthbertson, who asked for the study, said the information Rochester Hills published “was not an apples-to-apples comparison.”

“It became clear to me that our neighbors are trying to market themselves as being the most cost-effective place to live or try to run a business,” he said. “I appreciate every community’s interest in marketing its strengths, and certainly that is something every community should be doing in difficult economic times. … But having said that, I knew there was more to the story.”

When asked to respond to the report, Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett said he disagreed with the methodology and conclusion.

“I think it’s a great compliment to the city that others would choose to benchmark their city services and costs of city services against us,” he said. “The most basic thing we can look at is your millage rate. We are the lowest in Oakland County; we’re proud of that. Once you get away from that, there are a lot of assumptions you have to make.”

Taking what he called a “high-level” look (the cost of services divided by the number of people), Barnett said it’s cheaper to live in Rochester Hills than Rochester. The more expensive your house, he said, the more that is true.

That’s because with Rochester’s all-inclusive approach to taxation, a resident of a more expensive house pays more for a service like trash collection, for example.  Barnett also said that Rochester figured his city’s water usage too high.

With the average cost of a new home being built in Rochester Hills now $404,000, “For those new residents moving into our community, making the decision to build a $400,000  house, it’s cheaper to live in Rochester Hills,” Barnett said. “The more expensive your home, the better the value of Rochester Hills.”

Rochester resident Diane Young, who formerly lived in Rochester Hills, says there is a difference in city costs and services.

“I now live in Rochester and the taxes are higher but my roads are always plowed and they come and rake up my leaves in the fall and clean the streets all the time. I love that,” she said. “Rochester Hills has great parks which make it good also.”

Cuthbertson said it was time to let it be known that Rochester’s costs compare favorably.

“The measuring stick for a community should not be another community,” he said. “But when it is, I think it’s incumbent upon us to stand up. … I hope this council will be ambassadors with this information.”

“I have nothing bad to say about Rochester,” Barnett said. “I think they’re a very well-run city and residents of their city should be very proud. I think this study shows Rochester residents, much like Rochester Hills residents, have much to be proud of. Both cities deliver much value to their residents.”

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