Hills to hold line on taxes

Despite shrinking city revenues, Rochester Hills residents will not see their property tax rate rise next year.
City council voted Monday to maintain the same tax rate, 9.706 mills, that the city has charged for the last 12 years. Mayor Bryan Barnett said it’s the lowest tax rate for a city over 5,000 in Oakland County. Still, there are worries about the next few years as the economy struggles to improve.
The projected 2012 budget shows a drop in property values of 6.3 percent, or about $2 million. Overall revenues are expected to decrease 0.4 percent, while expenses are proposed to decrease 2.5 percent. Building activity has begun to rebound, and the budget expects revenue from permits to improve. Overall, the proposal calls for the city use $2 million from its fund balance for capital improvements.
The budget was introduced by Barnett in August; since then, council has held two workshop meetings. At Monday’s council meeting, there was a public hearing but no council debate. Council President Greg Hooper said a revised budget, based on council’s input, will be presented at next week’s meeting.
Resident Laurie Puscas, a candidate for city council, was the only person to speak during the public hearing. She objected to cutting the sheriff’s staff by one officer next year and asked council to make sure it’s prioritizing when making cuts.
“I would think the things that would flow to the top would be your essential services, such as police, fire and roads,” Puscas said. “I just don’t think our police services are where we should be making cuts. … If possible, bring back some of the patrol officers that were let go last year.”
Police staffing is an area where council is divided. In a straw poll, they came up 4-3 in favor of keeping the proposed reduction. The cut comes despite a 10-percent increase in the transfer of general-fund dollars to the police fund to offset shrinking revenues there.
Council also split 4-3 on funding for the Deer Management Advisory Committee and local streets. The majority favored reducing the DMAC budget and increasing the local-road construction budget to $2 million next year.
Two other areas of debate—transferring general-fund money to the drain fund to help cover maintenance, and how much interest earnings to expect (the budget projects a 74-percent boost)–were also subject to straw polling. Council found more common ground in those areas. They unanimously agreed to lower the interest expectation to the current year’s level and eliminated Barnett’s request to transfer general-fund dollars to the drain fund by a 6-1 margin.
Councilman Jim Rosen said despite his longstanding concerns about declining revenue, the budget is “pretty close” to what he wanted.
“I still see more pressure on our city rather than less,” he said. “We’ve taken some steps … but I think they are only the first real steps. It seems to me they may be less than we need. … I think we are still spending too much money over the next few years by drawing down the fund balances.”
Rosen said he would like to see the city spend less on capital improvements and roads while its revenues are shrinking in order to better “prepare for the worst.”
By Annette Kingsbury

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