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Fire millage passes— barely
Fire E&H fund mills increase by .3 to .8922

September 21, 2011

Brandon Twp.- The township board narrowly passed a .3 fire millage increase on this winter's tax bill after a last minute change of heart by the township treasurer, who admitted to ulterior motives at a previous joint meeting of the board and Ortonville Village Council.

Following a public truth-in-taxation hearing at the Sept. 19 township board meeting, the board formally approved by a 4-2 vote the 2011 tax rate request. Supervisor Kathy Thurman, Treasurer Terry Beltramo, and Trustees Tom Stowell and David King voted yes. Trustees Dana DePalma and Cheryl Gault voted no. Clerk Jeannie McCreery was absent.

The approval means the township will levy .8922 mills for the fire equipment and housing fund, a .3 mill increase, effective Dec. 1. A resident with a $120,000 home with a taxable value of $60,000 will pay about $18 more per year. The library debt millage decreased from .75 to .74 mills. Remaining unchanged are the police millage at 3.25, the fire operating fund at 3.2983, and the township general fund at 1 mill.

"I voted for it (the 2011 millage rates, including the fire e & h increase), but that was a last minute change," said Beltramo, who noted he went into the meeting with plans to vote no.

"I don't have a reason why I changed my vote, but I knew if we didn't do this little increase, there would be a big one later. I'm always screaming no new taxes, but I voted for it. I voted for it at the joint meeting, but I slipped one in on them and said it would take place on the 2012 winter taxes, which don't take effect until Dec. 1, 2012. My intent was not to put it on this year's taxes."

At a special joint meeting Aug. 15 Fire Chief Dave Kwapis appealed to the township board and village council to approve the .3 mill increase for the fire equipment and housing fund, explaining the move was necessary because of a 78 percent decrease in tax revenue since 2006 and the need to pay off debts including a loan for the M-15 property the township purchased in 2006 for a future fire department complex, and loans for a tanker and car. The fire department is also repaving the lot for fire station #1 and needs to replace the roof on that building, which is estimated to cost about $100,000. There are also concerns about aging tankers and engines which will need to be replaced in a few years at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars.

The village council responded by voting 6-0 to increase the E&H millage by .3 mills. Councilmember Aileen Champion was absent.

Beltramo made a motion at that meeting to approve the .3 millage increase for fire equipment and housing with no salary increases effective for the year 2012 tax collection. The motion passed 5-1, with King, McCreery, Beltramo, Stowell, Thurman voting yes and Gault voting no. DePalma was absent.

"I knew their intent was for the increase to take effect this year, but my intent was for next year," Beltramo said. "I expected them to catch it, but they just don't realize how the taxes work. It's probably not fair of me, but you use what weapons you have, right? Both boards should know how our tax system works, so they should have known exactly what I was saying and if they didn't, maybe it's time they started tax law. I'll admit I was devious, because I didn't want the tax increase and then I voted for it anyway (at the Sept. 19 meeting)."

Monday's meeting was the final approval of tax rates for 2011.

Gault said she voted no because even though she supports the fire department, she doesn't think it's the right time to raise millages.

"The shortfall for the E&H fund is minimal for the next year and we could easily cover that through other cash flow sources in our budget," she said. "It isn't fair to our citizens to raise rates right now. I wasn't recommending cuts to the fire department. According to the fire budget, it does show a bigger deficit in 2012 and 2013, but that gives us additional time to look at our budget and also gives us time to go to the voters and ask them if they want to do these increases. We are authorized to levy more mills (up to 5 mills for the E&H fund, as well as up to 5 mills for the fire operating fund), but in this instance and in this economy, the right thing to do is to ask the voters if they can afford to pay more taxes and how they want that money applied."

Kwapis said the millage increase was necessary to maintain Fire Station #1, as well as the fire equipment, including engines, tankers, and extrication devices.

"The question was posed, 'Could I get by without raising the millage rate?'" Kwapis noted. "We could get by, but we would have to rob from other funds and we would be back in 2012 asking for a much larger increase. If they went another year, then we're looking at upping both the operating and the E&H fund, and a lot more than .3 mills for each. The other option would be to cut services. Do we stop providing EMS? Fire prevention programs with schools and other groups? Do we close a fire station?"

Kwapis added that the closing of a fire station would affect ISO ratings, which determine insurance rates for residents.

He noted that the township reduced the fire millage rate four years ago when times were better, saving taxpayers more than a million dollars. If the millage rate had stayed the same there would be no need to ask for an increase now, he said, however, they were doing what was fically responsible at that time, just as they are doing what is fiscally responsible now.