Hills to get police ballot proposal

On a 6-1 vote, Rochester Hills City Council voted Monday to place a police funding proposal on the August 7 ballot.

The proposal will ask voters to renew two expiring police taxes totaling 1.2083 mills for 10 years, plus up to 2.5 mills of new revenue, all to be dedicated to police services. Separately, council also passed a resolution expressing its intent to reduce general-fund spending by the same amount of new tax levied so the outcome would be tax-neutral.

“The tax rate will not increase but the allowable millage rate would be increased,” said council President Greg Hooper. “I believe this is a status quo, net zero.”

The ballot proposal explains that the new tax would “allow the city to discontinue the use of general operating millage for police services.”

The separate resolution of council’s intent states, in part, that council “intends to offset the additional millage levy by correspondingly reducing the city’s general operating millage levy so that no net tax increase to city taxpayers will result from the approval of the special police millage.”

Councilman Ravi Yalamanchi was the lone dissenter.  He said the promise to cut taxes is not included in the ballot proposal, and therefore is not binding. He said he would prefer a straight renewal, and then going after other expiring millages as they occur over the next few years.

“I’m not in support of increasing any millages at this point in time,” he said. “It’s in concern of many families who are trying to balance the checkbook.”

The ballot proposal and resolution are based on a recommendation from a committee which has been studying police and road funding for several years. So far, very few residents have attended council’s discussions on the proposal. Several residents who did attend Monday’s meeting warned that an intense voter outreach will be needed.

“Historically, councils usually throw a ballot proposal out there” and hope it will pass, said resident Lee Zendel. “A police millage increase is something this community badly needs in order to make Rochester Hills a better place to live.” He challenged council members who supported the proposal to promise to “spend a significant number of evenings and weekends going door to door.”

Resident Deanna Hilbert said the proposal will be a tough sell, not just because it’s complicated, but also because the city’s finances seem to be improving, based on a recent audit and Monday’s financial forecast by finance director Keith Sawdon.

“I think that’s a mixed message there,” Hilbert said. “What I really, truly feel is unsustainable is the cost of city government.”

The city currently pays for law enforcement through two dedicated millages and a transfer from the general fund. In his report, Sawdon said that if nothing changes, law enforcement will consume 60 percent of the general fund by 2019. That’s money that can’t be used for other city needs, like roads and parks.

In the last couple of years, as property values and the taxes they generate have dropped, the city has cut back on the number of police officers to hold the line on spending. Ultimately, the funding level is determined by council each year.

“The message that needs to be stated … is the contribution from the general fund is unsustainable,” Hooper said. A dedicated millage, he said, would express the community’s desire to maintain police funding. “When it comes from the general fund, the message is clear that that’s subject to four votes of city council.”

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