Hills voters to decide new police funding strategy

At four paragraphs, Rochester Hills’ August 7 ballot proposal is lengthier than most. It’s also a bit more complex.

Is it a tax increase, or isn’t it? If not now, is there the potential for a tax increase down the road? This year, more than ever, homework is required before entering the voting booth.

The proposal is based on the recommendation of a citizen committee formed in 2007 to look for ways to address a structural deficit in police and road funding. Two dedicated police millages provide 1.2083 mills, which doesn’t cover the current level of policing. The city’s general fund provides another 2.5 mills, money that is therefore not available for other uses.

With the two police millages set to expire, the committee proposed a two-step strategy: renew the police millages, plus up to 2.5 additional mills for 10 years to offset the general-fund allocation; and pass a resolution stating that if the proposal is approved, council will discontinue the general-fund expenditure of the same amount of new tax levied. The idea was to be tax-neutral, but provide flexibility to the city in future years.

Council approved that strategy on a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Ravi Yalamanchi dissenting. Council rejected a separate proposal to ask voters for an additional 0.4 mills to add up to eight deputies.

Recently Yalamanchi explained that he doesn’t feel the ballot language reflects the intent and urged voters to study the proposal before election day.

“The issue is not about whether our sheriff’s department provides efficient service or not,” he said. “They do a wonderful job…. . If I understand that right, there would be no increase in taxes. That’s great. But if you look at the ballot language, that’s not what it says.”

The proposal would not increase funding for police services; rather, it would provide a guaranteed revenue stream at the current rate for the next 10 years. Future councils would not be bound by council’s resolution on the general fund.

“What the council did … was to put on the record the stated intent through the resolution,” Mayor Bryan Barnett said. “So there would be no change to the overall tax situation. If you paid $100 last year, you’ll pay $100 next year.”

In a rare move for the city, council agreed to fund a voter education campaign. A flyer mailed to voters includes the complete ballot language, the wording of the resolution, and a summary of how police services are funded. More detailed information is available on the city website.

The sheriff’s Rochester Hills substation responds to 30,000 calls for service per year. Staffing is currently at 57, down one from last year. This year, the city expects to spend $9.1 million for law enforcement; of that, $3.5 million comes from the police millages, the rest from the general fund.

If the ballot proposal is rejected and voters ultimately decide to renew the two expiring millages, reliance on the general fund can be expected to increase, or staffing could decrease. The cost of a deputy is set by the sheriff’s department through its contract with the city.

With election day approaching, residents both for and against the proposal spoke at the last city-council meeting.

Dee Hilbert said she’s hearing “mixed messages. Our general fund is up … yet they want a 2.5-mill increase. I just think it doesn’t add up.”

Committee member Dale Hetrick said it didn’t make sense to just ask for renewal of the two expiring millages.

“The ballot proposal fully funds the police service,” he said. “Discussions of things like continuing to renew the existing millages are nothing but a Band-Aid. This provides a 10 year solution to the problem.”

Hetrick rejected the notion that the proposal is a “money grab.”

“The city council has, with their resolution, agreed to eliminate funding,” he said.

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