Committee proposes options for police funding

A Rochester Hills committee has come up with two options for funding police services after two tax millages expire in 2014. Both would require voter approval.

At Monday’s city council meeting, the Police and Road Funding Committee presented council with two suggestions: either amend the city charter by adding a new 3.7-mill tax for police services, or ask for a 10-year renewal of the two expiring millages along with a new 2.5-mill tax. The latter proposal would also offer voters a tie-barred option to add 0.4 mills that would pay for up to eight more police officers.

The committee has been working since 2007 to come up with strategies for funding police and roads. Committee Chairman Don Cline said the city has already adopted some of the group’s recommendations, including the outsourcing of fire dispatching services and a 2010 proposal to repurpose an expired millage for local roads, which voters approved.

Now, council has to make a decision on which way to go for police funding. Council has scheduled a May 7 public hearing on draft ballot language.

The city currently spends $9 million a year to staff an Oakland County Sheriff’s substation with 57 officers. That’s down from a previous high of 60. The money comes from the two special police taxes which currently total 1.2083 mills, plus $4.7 million from the city’s general fund. That contribution eats up a significant portion of the city’s available funding for general operations, which is limited by charter to five mills.

Even though the proposals would constitute a tax increase, the committee asked council to promise voters to reduce general-fund spending by 2.5 mills, rendering the proposals tax-neutral. The committee decided against amending the charter to lower the general levy by that amount because of fears it could put the city in financial jeopardy in the future.

“Our concern was that totally ties council’s hands when they’re doing the budget,” said committee member LeAnne Rogers. “We’re presuming that we’re bottoming out and things will start improving (but) if something unforeseen came up, that 2.5 is still there.”

Committee Vice Chairman Dale Hetrick said the committee wanted to maintain residents’ expressed desire for low taxes while maintaining good police services. He said the committee also found residents want to have choices. That’s why the option of increasing funding to add more officers was suggested.

The substation responds to 30,000 incidents per year, but incidents of crime have been stable for the last four years, the committee found. So except for the 0.4-mill option, the proposals are for status-quo services.

“What we’re looking to do is stay ahead of the curve here … so we don’t get to a point to where now we’re in a panic situation,” Cline said. “We’ve come to the conclusion that proposed reductions, if they were to happen, would affect response times.”

Councilman Michael Webber, who serves on the committee, asked council to find a way, perhaps through a resolution, to promise voters that the city will reduce general-fund spending by 2.5 mills if voters approve a new tax. Councilmembers acknowledged that educating voters on the nuances of the arrangement, and getting their trust, will be difficult. And there’s no way council can bind future councils to the same promise.

“I feel very comfortable telling people that during my time on city council we’re not going to spend that money,” Webber said. He said future councils would be accountable to voters at the ballot box.

Resident Deanna Hilbert said she doesn’t trust council to keep the promise.

“It’s that simple. You give them more, they spend more,” she said.

Councilman Nathan Klomp shared the concern.

“I hope we can have some conversation that will put folks’ mind at ease as to how we will spend taxpayer dollars,” he said.

The committee has put up a Facebook page here.

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