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Battle over township police funding continues

June 23, 2010 - Atlas Twp.- An expired special assessment, escalating costs for police service, coupled with a decline in revenues sparked an hour-long public hearing Monday night. The future of funding township law enforcement will now move to a second public hearing at 6:30 p.m., July 26 after a 4-1 vote to establish a special assessment district.

The township established a contract with the Genesee County Sheriff's Department about 15 years ago, funded by 1 mill from area property owners, netting about $330,000 per year. The millage was renewed in 2008. Due to steady increases in the police costs, in 2005 a special assessment of $50 for every improved lot and $25 for unimproved lots was implemented by the township board, which garnered about $163,000 for the deputies.

However, following the expiration of the special assessment this past January, coupled with a decline in property values which dropped the police revenue to $296,000, the township coffers now lack about $100,000 to cover the police contract this year.

Township Supervisor Shirley Kautman-Jones voted no and advocates voting on the special assessment or millage.

"Let the people decide," said Jones. "We have been very fortunate in our community—it's very supportive of the police, fire and schools—but even at that, at least they have the chance to come out and vote. If the people vote they would be raising their own taxes—the special assessment would be $84 per improved lot to cover the police costs. The cost of the unimproved lot would stay at $25."

Jones suggests putting the police funding question on the November 2010 ballot along with the gubernatorial election.

"I understand that we are not going to raise taxes and 'we' are not, rather the majority of the people will decide that tax issue."

Other members of the township board did not see it that way.

"The township needs a plan to fund the police," said Trustee Barry June. "While keeping the special assessment at the current rate is just a stopgap until 2012 and the presidential election, it will give us the time to determine just how much we'll need. A millage right now in a time when property values are still dropping is not right."

"The greatest turnout for the millage election will be the presidential (election) in November 2012, not the gubernatorial election this November. Right now it's not a good time to be asking for more taxes and the assessments is a fair way to go about collection of the police millage."

June said the township general fund will have to support the sheriff's contract due to the shortages and at least he is against raising taxes to cover the additional costs.

Other board members objected to Kautman-Jones regarding the vote.

"I don't want to be a liar to the people," said Teri Onica, township clerk. "We said we were not going to raise taxes and that's what we should do."

Onica said the move will give taxpayers some relief by keeping the assessment the same amount.

The shortfall was magnified in September when the township board voted 4-1 to move forward with a new sheriff pro-posal for the 2009-10 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The new sheriff contract estimated at $539,000, up about $25,000 over the previous contract, includes four deputies, same as in prior years, but also extra costs for a detective-sergeant which both Fenton and Atlas townships had not funded previously. The residents of Vienna Township, who also have a contract with the sheriff department for police coverage, are currently charged for the service, said James Gage, Genesee County undersheriff.

"This board has a history of swimming upstream," said Scott Statson, trustee, who also supported the continuation of the millage. "We have $2.5 million in the coffers right now and we can keep the special assessment the same. "

The new contract split the $130,000 detective-sergeant position between Fenton Township (60 percent) and the township (40 percent). The cost of the four township deputies will remain the same until January, three months into the township contract, when they will receive a 2.5 percent pay hike. The next pay change will not occur until June 2011.

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