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Twp. adds two years to proposed police tax hike

August 25, 2010 - Sitting through last week's Oxford Township Board meeting felt more like watching a math class than a government body engaged in the decision-making process.

The clickety-clack of an adding machine filled the air as officials tried to solve the problem – X number of mills plus Y number of years equals Z number of police officers.

After much discussion, a few failed motions and many calculations, township officials finally voted 4-2 to revise the proposed 0.75-mill tax increase for police services that will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Officials didn't raise the number of mills, however, they did add two years to the proposal, making it a five-year tax increase.

If voters approve the tax hike, the levy would begin with the December 2010 tax bill and end with the December 2014 levy.

"I think it's a good compromise," said Treasurer Joe Ferrari, who proposed lengthening the tax levy instead of increasing the rate.

Officials initially debated raising the amount of the requested increase and considered rates as high as 1.4567 mills, which was proposed by Trustee Mike Spisz.

Spisz, along with Trustee Buck Cryderman, wanted to offer residents a millage increase that would allow them to keep their current level of police staffing from the Oakland County Sheriff's Department.

This includes 12 deputies plus a lieutenant, detective sergeant, patrol investigator and full-time administrative assistant.

"Let's put it out to the people in the township," Spisz said. "Let them make the decision. They vote it down, they vote it down. Then you make the necessary adjustments."

Township resident Randy Houston, who's also a sheriff's deputy, indicated he doesn't want to see any personnel cuts and believes people should be allowed to vote for a millage that keeps staffing as is.

"There's a lot of things I can live without, but having a safe place for me and my kids is why I'm here in Oxford," he said. "I read the police reports. I know what they say. I know what's happening . . . I'm willing to pay a little bit more for police protection, so I have a safe place to live, than I am for any (of the) other nice things that we have here in Oxford Township." Ferrari and Trustee Sue Bellairs disagreed.

"The whole theory and logic of asking voters to maintain the current level of 2010 services is just flawed," the treasurer said.

Using that logic, Ferrari argued if the township's going to ask residents to vote for a police millage increase that requires no budget cuts or reductions in personnel, then the municipality should be doing the same thing with its millages for the general fund, parks and recreation, library and fire services, instead of adjusting its 2011 budgets to accommodate reduced revenues.

"That's something that's wrong and we shouldn't allow that to happen," he said. "The voters expect us to budget appropriately for additional revenues during good economic times and to budget appropriately for reduced revenues during poor economic times."

"I don't think we should be keeping the same (staffing) because we can't afford the same," Bellairs said. "If we have to lay off a person, then we have to lay off a person."

Bellairs noted the sheriff's deputies haven't made any sacrifices in terms of pay or fringe benefits.

"Their prices keep going up, but I haven't seen any reductions," she said.

Ironically, despite all the debate, no one's quite sure if the requested 0.75-mill increase will maintain the substation's current staffing level for the next five years or still require personnel cuts at some point.

Sheriff's Lt. Larry Perry, commander of the township's substation, gave township officials something to consider.

If the substation's staffing was reduced from four to three road-patrol deputies per shift, the township could no longer have its no-fill contract with the department.

The no-fill contract is cheaper than the fill-contract in which the sheriff's department automatically provides a deputy to the community whenever someone calls in sick or takes a day off. Having a fill-contract means paying an additional $22,000 per deputy.

However, Supervisor Bill Dunn noted that since the township already budgets $8,000 in overtime for each deputy, the increase would really be $14,000 per officer.

Communities are required to have a minimum of four deputies per shift in order to have a no-fill contract like the township currently enjoys. This allows for flexibility in scheduling, so there's always at least two officers on the road, a safety requirement.

Dunn noted if someone must be eliminated for budget reasons, it should be the lieutenant, which is the most expensive position. The annual cost for a lieutenant is $146,875.

"That would show the people that we are trying to cut back a little bit," Dunn said.

The supervisor recalled how the substation used to be commanded by a sergeant.

As it stands right now, if voters just approve the other police millage on the Nov. 2 ballot – a three-year renewal of the existing 2.9152-mill tax – the township is expected to lose between five and six employees from its sheriff's substation in the coming years.

Dramatic decreases in the taxable values of properties have resulted in current millage rates generating less and less revenue each year, a trend that's expected to continue for at least the next couple years.

Originally, the township thought it was going to lose 3.5 staff members from its substation, if just renewal passed.

However, due to a $346,000 accounting error discovered last week by this reporter, the projected personnel cuts were increased to between five and six employees.

The township's police budget projections for 2011-14 were based on a fund balance that was on paper $346,000 greater than the amount of actual cash available.

"We were budgeting our decision (based) on a $1.2 million fund balance," Dunn said. "When you decrease your piggy bank by $346,000 it has a big effect on the bottom line."

Dunn apologized for the error, which was the result of a lack of communication between township departments.

The supervisor, treasurer and clerk plan to sit down and discuss ways to make sure "this never happens again," Dunn said.

If the 2.9152-mill renewal is approved, its levy would begin with the December 2012 tax bill and end with the December 2014 tax bill.

The current police tax expires with the December 2011 levy, meaning the township has funding in place for next year and 2012. Officials were surprised to learn the police millage expires with next year's tax collection as opposed to this year's, which is the assumption the board had been operating under.

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