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Township faces cuts to sheriff staffing in 2012

October 26, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry

Review Editor

There most likely will be cuts to the team of Oakland County sheriffs that patrol Orion Township's roads and neighborhoods in 2012, due to projected budget shortfalls.

Township Supervisor JoAnn Van Tassel said the police fund is one of the most pressing issues to address as the Orion Township Board prepares the township's budget for next year. She hopes to have it completed by the end of November.

"I'm not sure if we'll be able to continue to afford the current staffing levels," Van Tassel said.

Township Treasurer Alice Young agreed with the supervisor's assessment. "I don't see how we can go on with the existing number of officers. We'll probably cut personnel," she said.

Young explained that the township's three main sources of revenue – property taxes, revenue sharing and accrued interest – have all "taken significant hits" over the past couple of years. Trustee Neal Porter was more emphatic, noting "property values have been wiped out" leading to the budget dilemma.

A millage renewal for township police protection will be on the 2012 ballot for voters to consider, Porter said. Today, taxpayers pay two mills annually for police protection in the township. This equates to $400 for someone who owns a $200,000 home.

Porter added, however, that even if the existing tax rate is renewed by voters, the police budget will be short by an estimated $1 million dollars at the current staffing levels. He is not in favor of asking for a millage increase, either, given an increase to 3 mills would still not cover the current level of police protection in the township.

Besides, Porter said, there is the real possibility the increase request would likely be turned down by township voters, given the tough economic conditions.

"There's no question public safety is the township board's No. 1 concern," Porter said. "To provide this will require us to look for creative, yet responsible ways, to reduce the police budget. We're going to look at how similar communities in our region facing the same issues are answering the challenge."

Another key budget issue to be addressed by the township board will be the operational budgets for the new Orion Center and Wildwood Pavilion.

Van Tassel said the township needs to make allowances for the facilities to cover staffing and expenses that typically go with these types of facilities.

"(The Orion Center and Wildwood Pavilion) will provide beautiful, ideal settings for various events and township activities and we have to keep them well maintained," she said. "We may need different staffing patterns than in the past. The board is looking at this as part of the budgeting process."

Young said she hopes the facilities can

be self-supporting, but that may not be possible, especially for the Orion Center. Its effective operation may require the township to continue supplementing it with taxpayer funds. Neither Young nor Porter wants to increase the taxpayer burden to operate the Orion Center. They hope to "hold the line" on the taxpayer contribution to the budget and cover any added operational expenses with use and rental fees.

"We're hoping to increase the revenues coming out of the facilities," Porter said. "We want to make the Orion Center and Wildwood rent-friendly and produce additional revenue streams from them."

Van Tassel did indicate the fire protection fund, also up for millage renewal next year, is in good shape. In addition, the water/sewer and safety path funds are in "great shape," she said.

The township board also will be contemplating what to do with the existing Senior Center in the village once the Orion Center opens later this year. The township acquired the building years ago under the stipulation it would host activities for senior-age citizens.

Once these activities cease upon opening of the Orion Center, the township will return the title of the building to the village, the supervisor said, noting it is just a question of timing.

"I personally would like to see the renovations to the Union Church portion of the building completed, so it can be used for recitals, plays, weddings and similar events, with the rest used to house village services," Van Tassel said.

Village council member Mike Toth "loves the idea" of the village reacquiring the existing senior center building.

"I think the village would benefit greatly," he said. "I'd like to see the village offices moved there, along with the police department, downtown development authority and possibly the chamber of commerce. I don't see any reason why this couldn't be done."

According to Van Tassel, the township is employing a new budget strategy this fall that takes a line-by-line look at expenses over the past three years (including 2011). Some assumptions will be made, including the expected rate of inflation and future costs, and then the board will develop a projected three-year budget.

"The purpose of a forecast budget is to provide us with an extended look into the future," Van Tassel said. "There may be a situation that, if we don't do something now, we may have problems two years from now. This helps us plan.

"It's a great tool. I used this process successfully in the village." (Van Tassel was Lake Orion village manager from 1999-2007.)

Young conceded the budgeting process will not be easy this year. "We continually are looking to be more efficient with fewer dollars to spend," she said.

The township board is conducting a special meeting to discuss the budget this Thursday, Oct.27, at 7 p.m. It is open to the public.

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