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Options for adding dispatch issue to Nov. ballot reviewed

May 21, 2014 - Sometimes the most simple questions are the most difficult to ask, especially when trying to do so on a ballot.

Just ask Oxford Village attorney Bob Davis.

"I've struggled with this for a while," he told council. "These (ballot) scenarios were tough (to write)."

Last week, Davis presented council with four samples of potential ballot language meant to ask voters if they wish to continue funding the village police dispatch center or outsource that service to the Oakland County Sheriff's Office for a potential savings to the municipality.

"I wanted you to see the extremes of how folks would come up with language on your particular issue," he said.

The deadline to place proposals on the November ballot is July 22. Council voted 4-1 to set the issue aside and revisit it at the 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 10 meeting.

In the meantime, Davis plans to meet with county officials to see what could be acceptable as far as ballot language, yet still accomplish the intention to give voters a clear choice on the dispatch issue.

Two of the scenarios presented by Davis run the risk being ruled advisory questions because they directly ask voters to choose which agency they want to provide dispatch services.

"The good news is nothing's advisory unless someone challenges it or the county rules it advisory," Davis said.

Under state law, governments are not authorized to ask voters advisory questions. This way governing bodies cannot shirk their responsibility to make decisions on "hot potato" issues by leaving them for voters to decide, according to Davis.

"If the legislature tells you as a village council that you have certain jobs that you've got to do, certain decisions that you need to make, you don't have the authority to delegate it to the people," he explained.

"Advisory starts to become an issue when you're asking the people to decide an issue you ought to decide," Davis told council. "That's why it's hard to write (a ballot question like this one)."

The other two scenarios presented by Davis dealt with asking voters whether they wished to approve a dedicated property tax equalling 2.5 mills for the specific purpose of continuing to operate and maintain a local dispatch center.

Although the proposed dispatch budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year is $304,653, the net cost to village taxpayers is $274,353 once outside revenue sources are subtracted.

Of the 10.62-mill general operating tax paid annually by village taxpayers, a total of 2.512 mills would be spent on the dispatch center under the proposed budget. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of a property's taxable value.

Although both of Davis' dedicated tax scenarios ask voters to approve or reject 2.5 mills for local dispatch, they do so in different ways.

One scenario asks voters to approve a brand new dedicated tax of 2.5 mills to continue funding local dispatch. If approved, it would be levied in addition to the current 10.62 mills, increasing the total village tax rate to 13.12 mills.

"To stay away from potential advisory-nature ballots, the cleanest thing you can do is just go to the people with a vote for a new millage of 2.5," Davis told council.

The idea of potentially raising taxes didn't sit well with Councilman Elgin Nichols, who's been an ardent proponent of giving village voters a choice on the dispatch issue.

Nichols' goal has been to cut expenses and save money within the existing 10.62-mill tax rate.

To him, raising taxes works against that because if the village is given more money, "we'll spend it" and "that's the problem."

"I don't see any reason to do that," he said. "And I will never ever, ever vote for a tax increase. That's my position."

"I don't think the residents want to see a tax increase," Nichols added. "I've talked to a number of them and I haven't run into anybody saying, 'Yes, I want a tax increase.'"

Nichols preferred Davis' other option in which voters could be asked if they wish to take 2.5 mills from the existing 10.62 mills, dedicate it to local dispatch and have the general operating millage reduced by the same amount, dropping it to 8.15 mills.

This scenario does not involve a tax increase, only a redistribution of the existing millage.

"It's going to be 10.62 before the vote and after the vote," Davis said.

"Let's keep it at 10.62 (mills)," Nichols said. "Let's not increase the tax. Let's withdraw, if the people choose to do that, the 2.5 (mills) from the 10.62. It makes sense."

If the voters rejected the idea of dedicating 2.5 mills to local dispatch, Nichols asserted the village could then contract with the county and spend the potential savings on other things such as infrastructure.

But there are some issues with going the dedicated millage route.

If voters approved dedicating 2.5 mills to continue funding local dispatch, be it through a tax increase or a redistribution of existing millage, the village would be obligated to maintain the local center until that millage expired or the voters decided otherwise on a future ballot.

A future council could not decide to contract with the sheriff's office for dispatch services as long as the dedicated millage for local services was still in place.

"The question of whether or not you're going to keep or get rid of dispatch is out of your hands," Davis said. "You are tied to that decision of the folks."

That limits what council could do with regard to the local dispatch center in the face of future budgetary problems.

"It takes away your flexibility," Davis said. "Once you put the issue to the electorate, your flexibility on that particular issue, it's encroached upon. It's not fatal, but it certainly gets encroached upon."

Councilwoman Sue Bossardet noted that right now, it costs 2.5 mills to operate the local dispatch center. But in the future, if the cost increases to say 3 mills and the village is obligated to keep the local service, then the difference would have to be made up using monies from the general fund.

But what if the voters were to reject a 2.5-mill tax dedicated to keeping local dispatch?

If that were to happen in either the tax increase or redistribution scenario, the village would still be able to continue levying 10.62 mills and using part of it to fund the local dispatch center.

Davis said council "can pretty much do" what it wants with that 10.62 mills.

That's because neither scenario contains any language that obligates the village to contract with the sheriff's office should voters reject a dedicated millage for local services.

The decision of whether to keep local dispatch or contract with the county would go back to being council's decision.

"Then we made (the voters) go through this process and we're no further ahead than we were before," said Councilman Bryan Cloutier.

With regard to the scenario involving asking voters to dedicate 2.5 of the current 10.62 mills for local dispatch, Cloutier said although it sounds logical, "it really doesn't solve our problem" in terms of the village's need for more money.

"All it's doing is saying we're going to have a certain amount of money set aside for dispatch, but it still puts budgetary restraints on the future, moving forward," he said. "Although I can respect the fact that we're looking at this from a perspective of not raising taxes, it doesn't solve any problem. All it does is put a proposal before the people that they have to read and say 'yes' or 'no' on."

That being said, Cloutier believes if the voters rejected a dedicated millage for local dispatch, "then that tells us we need to seriously consider going to the county because we cannot continue doing what we're doing."

Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth disagreed.

"I don't think you get anything from the voters other than they don't want to spend another 2.5 mills," she said.

Helmuth felt the voters would view the question as more about money than dispatch services.

Bossardet feared the voters would automatically expect their taxes to go down if they rejected the 2.5 mills for local dispatch and the village contracted with the county.

If the village were to contract with the sheriff's office for police dispatch services, the cost would be $28,130 this year.

The village's gross savings from switching to the county would be approximately $246,000. Subtract the approximately $31,000 in "fixed overhead costs" for the police station building, insurance, etc. and village Manager Joe Young estimated the net savings would be approximately $215,000 annually.

However, that savings doesn't take into account other potential costs the village could incur such as if council decided to hire personnel to man the police department's front desk in order to help citizens and provide administrative services.

These functions are currently being provided by village dispatchers. Right now, visitors can walk into the village police department and be assisted by a dispatcher 24-7.

Young estimated providing this type of staff six days a week for 48 hours would cost approximately $65,000. Adding a second shift would cost another $65,000, for a total of $130,000.

If the village chose the one-shift staffing level, Young estimated the savings of switching to county dispatch would decrease to approximately $150,000 annually. If the municipality went with two-shift staffing at the front desk, the net savings would be $85,000 annually, according to the manager's figures.

Of course, that's if council decided the police station needed front desk staffing and was willing to pay for it.

If the local dispatch center were to close, council could decide to install a call box in the police station lobby that provides a direct link to the county dispatch center. Visitors could press a button and be connected with a dispatcher, who in turn, could direct an officer to return to the station.

Since January, Lake Orion's police station is no longer manned by a dispatcher 24-7, so it utilizes a call box linked to Oxford's dispatch center.

According to Nichols, the call box is working just fine in Lake Orion. He said he inquired if there have been any problems with it and "they've had none," so when it comes to utilizing a call box in Oxford, "that is a possibility."

Oxford Township Supervisor Bill Dunn, who attended the council meeting as a village resident, noted it should also be taken into consideration that the police station already has staff working there 40 hours a week during the day.

Ultimately, if council were to move forward with placing some type of dispatch question on the ballot, Davis said it must figure out all the financial information associated with switching to county, so it can be presented to the public as part of a "nonpolitical, factual" white paper designed to inform, not persuade, voters.

"Somewhere in this process we have to convey what the savings is by going to the county," Davis said. "We need to know that exact figure (regarding how much switching to the county would cost). That impacts how much money you're saving."

However, one of those potential costs can't be figured out now because it would have to be negotiated with the police union.

In the police union contract, which expires June 30, 2017, it states that in the event the municipality closes the "police department and/or dispatch center for any reason . . . the village agrees to provide severance benefits for full-time employees for the term of the contract."

The village has three full-time dispatchers.

Davis made it clear to council this doesn't mean that should the village close the dispatch center tomorrow, it would be obligated to pay the employees three years worth of wages.

"Severance benefits is not defined in the contract, but it certainly doesn't mean you've got to pay all their wages," the attorney said.

"It's something that is going to be negotiated at the time."

Even though he's been a proponent of giving village voters like himself a choice on the dispatch issue, Dunn changed his mind after listening to the scenarios presented by Davis.

"The thing that scares me is that you're going to get a situation where you're not going to have control," he said. "If you want my opinion, I wouldn't do anything. I would have you guys do your job. And if the people don't like it, they'll vote you out."

"I do think that in the long run, the do-nothing (option) is interesting and potentially, smart," Davis told council. "This may be a decision you guys have to make."

Cloutier said the driving force behind this discussion was the idea of giving residents a choice, but that might not be what's best.

"If we let the people decide (the dispatch issues), we're kind of limited as to how that's going to be written (on the ballot) and we may not like the outcome of letting the people decide. So, we're back to square one," he said.

"You can't always delegate a tough question to the electorate," Davis said.

"I think we should do our job," Bossardet said.

At the end of the day, Nichols said he would like to see more of the public get involved with this issue and provide feedback.

"It's unfortunate that our community doesn't get involved more," Cloutier said. "It's not unique to Oxford, it's all over. People just don't get involved unless you're doing something seriously wrong and then they recall you."

"I honestly believe that they do care and I think if the information is out there, they will come forward," Nichols said.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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