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Public tells council no tax hike

May 05, 2010 - Members of the public filled the Oxford Village Council chambers Tuesday night and although only a few spoke, the message was quite clear – they don't want a tax increase.

"Any increase is just totally unacceptable; this council should be looking at a reduction," said Jan Drogosch, a village resident and former council member. "Absolutely, there should be no increase. I don't know any other municipalities – and they're facing the same struggles that you are – that are looking at increases. There's just no way."

Figures presented by village Manager Joe Young have shown council various proposed budget scenarios at the current 10.12-mill tax rate and at increased rates of 11 and 11.12 mills. At one time, Young even proposed a budget based on 11.62 mills, but it was quickly taken off the table after the April 27 meeting.

"I support what Jan's saying," said village resident Mary Ann Baxter. "The number of foreclosures in our neighborhood is just incredible. I think the council should look at what else you have to do to cut operating costs, whatever that is . . . There's a number of us here from Oxford Lakes supporting this position."

"I totally agree with everything Jan Drogosch said," stated Gary Ledger, a 25-year village resident, noting he was attending his very first meeting. "We really don't want an increase. I'm serious about this. You need to listen to us."

Council listened and some officials seemed to agree, but no final decisions regarding the millage rate were made. Officials decided to schedule a special budget meeting for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 18. Council must approve a budget and tax rate at its May 25 meeting.

"I personally cannot support a budget with a millage increase in it," said Councilman Tony Albensi. "I will not support a budget with a millage increase in it."

"People deserve a government that lives within its means, doesn't spend more than it brings in and doesn't stick its hand out when times are bad," Albensi noted. "I don't want to stick my hand out. I won't stick my hand out."

"I don't think Tony stands alone in the fact that taxes should not be raised," said village President Teri Stiles. "I believe we all believe that. I've been in this community (for) 25 years, I can't afford for my taxes to go up. We don't want to raise taxes."

"My opinion is this council has worked tirelessly to look at cuts to maintain a 10.12 (mill rate) without any increases," said Councilman Tom Benner. "Last night (at a special meeting), it was stated several times we do not want to raise taxes . . . We're doing everything possible not to raise taxes. We don't want to raise taxes."

In addition to the numerous budget cuts it's been making over the last few months, the village has been pondering a potential tax increase because of declining revenue.

According to Young's numbers, the village lost $120,000 in revenue from last year's 1-mill tax cut, plus another $145,000 from the 8.4 percent drop in total taxable value.

Faced with another reduction in taxable value of 10.6 percent for 2010-11 fiscal year, which begins July 1, the village would lose an additional $145,000 in revenue if the tax rate remained at 10.12 mills, according to Young.

Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth did not say during the meeting whether she was for or against the idea of a tax increase.

"I will not support a budget that is not fiscally responsible and leaves this village in an unhealthy position," she said.

Councilman Dave Bailey proposed raising the tax rate to 10.87 mills – a 0.75-mill increase. He indicated he examined the approximately 1,300 tax bills in the village in order to arrive at that rate.

"Hardly any of them would increase because of the decreases in property values that we've seen in the past year," he explained. "There would really be only a handful of residential properties – somewhere around nine – that would actually sustain an increase in the size of the check that you would have to write to pay your property taxes for the village. That is the reason why I'm willing to consider a millage as high as 10.87."

Drogosch didn't agree with Bailey.

"It absolutely is an increase," Drogosch said. "There's no ifs, ands or buts about it . . . You are increasing the tax rate, so make that clear to everyone in the audience. It's very deceptive what you're saying that only nine tax bills are going to get increased. Every tax bill will be increased by this millage."

Bailey's proposal is still an increase in the sense that if the millage rate were kept the same, village residents would automatically pay less taxes in July because their properties' taxable values decreased. They would pay more dollars under Bailey's suggested 10.87-mill rate than if the current 10.12-mill rate was levied against the new lower values.

"A tax increase is a tax increase," Drogosch noted. "If you're going to put any extra millage onto that 10.12 (mills), that is a tax increase. It's certainly an increase whatever way you look at it."

Albensi agreed. "Just because you're paying the same amount doesn't mean an increase in the millage rate isn't a tax increase," Albensi said. "I don't buy that argument. I've never bought that argument."

Although she couldn't cite any specifics, Drogosch urged the council to make further cuts, particularly "frivolous expenditures."

"This is the time, more than any time, that you should be looking to lower our taxes, not keep them the same, not raise them," she said. "I do believe, as a past member of council, there are ways to cut the dollars without raising the taxes."

Stiles noted that at the special budget meeting held Monday night, council came up with $180,000 in additional budget cuts. That's on top of the many other cuts made at council's previous budget discussions.

"I don't believe this council's ever allowed frivolous spending since I've been here, in six years," Stiles noted. "Certainly, if there was, that's no more in this budget."

"When I first came here six years ago, we had six people in our (front) office. Today, we have three full-time people, so we've been cutting all along," Young noted.

Albensi, who had to leave Monday's meeting early due to health reasons, was "pleased to hear there (was) $180,000 in more cuts."

"My final comments, when I left that meeting last night, were asking this council 'did we cut enough?' I personally have been an advocate for continuing cuts," he said.

"The biggest chunk of our general fund, as everyone knows, is salaries, health care, long-term legacy costs – that is going to kill us," Albensi continued. "Unless we continue to cut those, we're going to be in bad shape. The private sector has done it for a number of years, it's time for the public sector to get it."

"Our employees are taking pay cuts. Our employees are taking benefit cuts. They've frozen their wages," Helmuth replied. "Several employees of the village have lost their jobs saving the village money. So, it's not like the public sector has done nothing. I think our employees have given up plenty. They're aware of the situation. They've come up with ideas (and) done everything they can to save the village money."

Village employees have sacrificed in this year's budget process.

The police and DPW unions have agreed to a combined $78,816 in negotiated savings for 2010-11 and are willing to consider more cuts. The village's six non-union employees – manager, police chief, DDA director, clerk/treasurer, DPW superintendent and deputy treasurer – have agreed to a total of $18,894 in pay reductions and increased health insurance and retirement contributions.

"I appreciate every concession and cut that's been made by our employees. It doesn't go unnoticed," Albensi said. "I do not think it's been enough. I think it should be more and it can be more."

On the health insurance alone, all the full-time employees – both union and nonunion – agreed to increase their contribution toward their premiums from $120 to $300 per year, with the exception of Young who volunteered to pay $1,500 annually.

However, some members of council and the public didn't feel a $300 annual contribution toward health insurance is enough.

"$300 a year is nothing," Albensi said. "Employees need to participate more in their health care costs."

"I'm paying probably $500 a month on a fixed income," Drogosch said. "Three hundred (dollars) a year is hardly a concession in the private sector these days. That's less than $30 a month."

Drogosch told council it's "unbelievable in this day and age" that village employees were paying only $120 annually for health insurance "in view of the depressed economy."

"I believe that you can maintain on a 10.12 (mill rate)," she said. "If that means you have to increase their health premiums, it may have to happen. Whatever it takes to maintain 10.12 (mills) or less is what I'm looking for."

Ledger, who retired from General Motors eight years ago, told council he's paying $405 per month for his health insurance. "I just want you to understand what's happening to us people out there," he said.

Helmuth noted the village has retired employees who are paying more than $800 per month for health insurance.

"You're not alone," she said. "I'm paying for my health insurance. Our employees are chipping in for theirs. None of our employees are getting rich. Don't think anybody's swimming in it here."

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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