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Twp. makes village final offer

July 21, 2010 - It's been seven long years and along the way, more than $563,000 in legal fees have been paid by the taxpayers of two governments that have trouble coexisting as one community.

But despite it all, it appears there could finally be a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel otherwise known as the Oxford Township versus Oxford Village lawsuit over the fire department.

Right now, the ball's in the village council's court.

Following a closed session meeting last week, township officials voted 5-2 to offer a "final settlement" proposal to the village. This offer is good until Wednesday, Aug. 11, the township's next meeting.

In a nutshell, the township's offering the village continued fire services with no extra usage charges, the deeds to the old township hall and old fire station (both on W. Burdick), a five-year contract with village dispatch and $50,000 in cold, hard cash.

"Am I satisfied with everything that's in it? No. But that's why they call it a compromise," said Supervisor Bill Dunn. "I think it's a great deal for the village and they'd be nuts not to take it."

"I'm not that unhappy with it," said village President Teri Stiles, who attended the township meeting. "In the 14-some attempts we've had to come to some kind of middle ground, this is the closest that we've ever come."

"I'm hopeful that we can make some sound judgments and outlive our history," she noted. "I'm leaning toward trying to make a settlement that will work for everybody. This is taxpayer money regardless of whether we're township residents or village residents. The sooner we can get this done and over with, the better it is for all the taxpayers. I think we can all benefit if we make some kind of settlement right now."

Dunn agreed.

"As the township supervisor and a village resident, I just want to put an end to this thing," he said. "I want to stop paying double attorney bills and move on. I think we're all pretty tired of it."

When asked how she plans to vote, Stiles replied, "I'm on the fence still about it."

"I'm fine either way. But I really would like to see it be done and over with, so that we can move forward and maybe we can act as one community," she said.

Let's hear from the public

Stiles is inviting members of the public – both village and township residents – to attend the 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 27 council meeting at 22 W. Burdick St. and give their input on the settlement and what they think officials should do.

"I just figured that would probably be the best way to get all this out on the table," she said. "I would like to hear what the residents want. Do they want to commit to on-going spending or what?"

"We're charged with making this decision, but two months after we've made it, the entire room's going to be full of people saying, 'Look at all the money you're spending when we don't have it!' It would be nice to get input beforehand. I want to hear from people."

The proposed settlement

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, township and village residents would continue paying the same millage rate for fire services. Right now, all residents pay a total of 2.5 mills for fire/EMS and Advanced Life Support services.

If the settlement's accepted, the village would not be required to pay the township an annual usage charge as ruled by the arbitrator who's been overseeing the court case since 2005.

These usage charges represent the percentage of fire resources actually used by the village and would be based on a three-year average.

The village would be required to pay the difference between the actual usage and what's currently being paid in property taxes.

It's already been determined the village uses more in fire services than it pays in property taxes.

Based on projections, over the next 10 years, these usage charges could amount to approximately $1 million or more for the village, if the municipality was required to pay them per the arbitrator's award.

Stiles likes the idea of not having to pay extra. "I really don't want to see service fees charged to the village residents, so that's really appealing to me," she said.

As part of the proposed settlement, the township also agreed to sign over to the village the deeds for the old township hall (18 W. Burdick St.) and all of its parking, along with the old fire station (22 W. Burdick St.)

This would give the village something it's wanted for a while – ownership of the entire municipal complex and all of its parking.

But wait, there's more.

The township agreed to enter into a five-year contract with the village for fire/EMS dispatch services. The contract would begin at the new lower annual rate of $34,000 and increase by 3 percent each year.

With regard to dispatch, the township noted in its offer that it wants all land-line 9-1-1 calls to go to Oakland County dispatch. It also wants documentation concerning state training for village dispatchers and the village's compliance with Medical Control Board standards for Emergency Medical and Fire Dispatch.

In light of the settlement offer, township officials last week postponed making a decision on whether to continue contracting with the village police for dispatch services or switch to county dispatch. It was noted a decision will be made at the Aug. 11 meeting.

"I think if we don't make a settlement, we'll certainly lose dispatch. I don't want to see that happen," Stiles said. "If we do, that's a testament to all of us failing to come to some kind of terms."

Finally, the township agreed to pay the village $50,000 cash from its general fund as part of the settlement of all claims listed in the litigation.

Close, but can they bridge the gap?

The township's settlement offer isn't too far from an offer made by the village council following a closed session meeting on Tuesday, July 13.

The village's offer included eliminating the additional usage charge, taking ownership of the old township and fire halls, and giving the township a five-year dispatch contract starting at $34,000.

Where the two offers differed was that the village also wanted the township to pay $367,000 in cash for its equity in the fire department, plus pay up to $50,000 of the cost to upgrade the village police's dispatch equipment.

Stiles said it's the cash part of the settlement that could be the big issue for the village because the municipality was hoping to use that money to fix up the old township hall and have the parking lot reconstructed.

The estimate to either renovate the building or demolish it and turn it into more parking lot is $75,000, while the parking lot reconstruction is projected to cost $165,000.

"There's been discussion amongst council that if we take on the township building, it's going to cost us more money," she said. "I think that will be the bone of contention, the fact that the taxpayers will have to put more money into that building. Even if we take it down, it's still going to cost us some money. That's why we were looking for some cash settlement as well."

In the end, Stiles said only one thing's for sure – village residents are not through paying for this situation.

"No matter what we do, the village residents will end up having to pay more money, whether we go with the settlement as it is or we decide not to take that settlement," she said.

DDA supports a settlement

Although it's not involved, the Downtown Development Authority declared its desire to see the village and township settle things.

At its July 19 meeting, the DDA board voted unanimously to send a letter to the village supporting a settlement between the two municipalities.

DDA Chairman Kevin Stephison clarified the letter is to support the general concept of a settlement, not the specific offer currently facing the village.

"We approved sending a letter of support (for) a settlement, not this particular one," he said. "If this is the one the council chooses to accept, so be it. We just want to spur them along to finally settle on this and move on to the next stage."

Stephison said like everyone else, the DDA feels the whole thing's gone on long enough. "We want to put it to bed just like the village does," he explained. "We believe that it's been a distraction long enough and that we need to move on to provide stability when it comes to the parking lot that's involved in this issue."

The municipal lot behind the village offices and old township hall is utilized by downtown businesses in the southwest quadrant for both employee and overflow customer parking.

Stephison pointed out that as long as the village-township dispute continues to drag on, no improvements can be made to the parking lot, which is in desperate need of repair.

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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