Hills police proposals raise doubts

With two police millages expiring next year, Rochester Hills voters will soon be asked to consider how to fund police services into the future. A committee has presented three possible options, but city council and residents who spoke at a public hearing Monday showed that there is, as yet, no consensus on how to proceed.

The city currently levies two special police millages, which expire in 2013. The two taxes aren’t enough to pay for the current level of law enforcement, so the city transfers 20 percent of its general fund to cover the balance. This year three police positions were cut; more cuts are expected in the next couple of years due to the drop in property values.

The committee recommends keeping police funding at the current level by renewing the expiring taxes and adding a new 2.5 mill tax to eliminate the general-fund subsidy. The committee offered council two ways to do that; a charter amendment or a 10-year millage. The committee also wants to offer voters a separate option of an additional 0.4 mill to add up to eight officers.

The committee is asking council for a commitment to reduce general-fund spending by 2.5 mills if voters approve a new tax. The committee did not recommend amending the charter to that effect. At the May 21 meeting, council plans to decide which approach to use, which election to go for and what the ballot language will say.

Seven residents who spoke at Monday’s hearing all indicated they see problems in getting voter approval of any of the proposals.

“I fully support the need for additional police funding,” said Lee Zendel. “Sadly, I don’t believe the voters of this city will approve of anything other than a straight renewal of the two police millages.”

“I absolutely guarantee you … it’s going to fail,” said former councilman Scot Beaton, noting the economy. “To not ask just for a flat renewal at this time … is a horrible mistake.” He asked council to use existing funds to restore the three police positions cut this year.

Resident Gordon Duda, who said he supports a straight renewal, called the proposals “simply a grab for additional tax dollars.” He said voters will need a guarantee that the general fund will be reduced to offset the new tax.

The committee has been working on solving the city’s funding needs for police and roads since 2007. They said they want a tax-neutral approach. But council members disagree as to whether that will solve the city’s structural funding problem.

“For us not to talk about increasing spending is a bit disingenuous,” said Councilman Jim Rosen. He said residents he’s talked to are concerned the city is depleting its general fund to pay for police, using funds that could otherwise pay for streets or parks.

Councilman and committee member Mike Webber said the group wanted to guarantee public-safety funding. Otherwise, future councils might prefer to use the general fund for other things.

“What the committee proposed was to secure that funding and put it aside for police,” he said.

Councilman Ravi Yalamanchi pointed to the city’s latest audit report, which was presented Monday. The auditors said the city has done a good job of responding to the economic downturn and is well-positioned for the future. It also showed an uptick in revenue, indicating things may be turning around. Based on that, and the hardships some residents are still facing, Yalamanchi said he supports a straight renewal of the existing police millages

“We have good reserves and we’re not tapping into it,” he said. “If you would ask who is the richest citizen in Rochester Hills, I would say it’s the city government, which is great. … I think we do this in incremental steps, not adding new tax burden for the residents.”

Council President Greg Hooper disagreed. “We all know that it’s unsustainable what we’re transferring right now,” he said.

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