Source: Sherman Publications

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Twp. votes down minor tax cut

by CJ Carnacchio

September 28, 2011

Oxford Township residents were only one vote a way from receiving a very slight break on their December property tax bills.

Last week, the township board voted 3-2 to levy 0.95 mill as its operating tax to help support its $2.026 million general fund in the upcoming 2012 fiscal year. Officials also approved several other millage rates and budgets for the upcoming fiscal year (see shaded box on Page 26).

Supervisor Bill Dunn lobbied to lower the operating tax to 0.90 mill due to the fact that the township is in good fiscal shape overall and has consistently had extra money.

"I know the last couple of years we've have significant surplus in our general fund at the end of the year," he said.

For example, the township had $223,927 in unspent funds from its 2010 fiscal year.

To cover the proposed 0.05 mill tax cut, Dunn's department presented an alternate budget that lowered the general fund's contingency line item from $176,675 to $143,741.

For the individual taxpayer, the cut would not have amounted to much. One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of a property's taxable value. So, on a home with a $100,000 taxable value, 0.05 mill equals $5.

The supervisor noted the idea for the tax cut came from an e-mail sent by Trustee Mike Spisz, who was out of town on vacation and unable to attend the meeting.

He had his deputy supervisor run the budget numbers and it looked like "a pretty good idea."

Dunn doesn't believe the township should be collecting more money than it actually needs without at least considering lowering the property tax rate.

"I know that some people would like to take this excess money and put it into things like the cemetery and safety paths, but the community did vote down the safety paths," he said.

In 2008, township voters by a margin of 1,686-to-1,164 rejected a proposed 10-year, 0.25-mill tax to cover the construction of new safety paths along with the maintenance and replacement of existing ones.

The supervisor said it's "disingenuous" for the township to collect a general operating tax that he believes is "a little bit inflated to fund something that was turned down."

"I'd rather be up front with the public and try to keep the budgets as close as we can to not exceed(ing) what we possibly could use," Dunn explained.

Opposition to proposed tax cut came from an unlikely source Trustee Sue Bellairs, who's typically a proponent of lower taxes.

Her opposition was primarily based on the uncertain and volatile nature of the economy.

"Things have already changed overnight several times," Bellairs said. "I don't know if anybody can guarantee that the property values are going to stay the same, (or) the state revenue's going to stay the same. If you could guarantee that, I would be all for (a tax cut)."

"I would be the first one that would want to lower taxes, but I'm living in a world right now, and (in) an economy, that I've never lived in before," she noted.

Bellairs explained the township's had surplus funds because it's already made cutbacks over the years such as the elimination of three full-time employees.

"That's the reason we have some extra money," she said "We saw what was happening and then we made (efforts) to do something about it."

It's that kind of foresight that's kept the township in relatively good fiscal shape compared to many other Michigan municipalities, according to Bellairs.

"There's communities in a lot of trouble right now and that isn't us," she said. "I don't want to put the township at risk until I can see more (of) how this economy is going. I don't see it going in the direction (that) I would prefer it to be going in."

Dunn argued that lowering the tax rate by 0.05 mill wouldn't place the township in any jeopardy. "I don't see it being put too much at risk by dropping the taxes $30,000 to $40,000 when you have over $100,000 you're putting into contingency," he said.

But Bellairs doesn't believe the current 0.95-mill rate is inflated.

"We don't even collect a whole mill in the township," she said. "I think we have been conservative with the money. If there's any fat in there, it certainly isn't going to anybody on this board . . . I don't think that we're overcharging anybody."

Bellairs noted how the township's extra money "has gotten us out of some jams before."

When Oxford's police millage failed twice in 1999, the township was forced to use money from its building and site fund an aggregate of surplus monies collected over a number of years to pay for a whole year's worth of service from the Oakland County Sheriff's Department. "We got saved several times because this board was very conservative in the past," Bellairs said.

She explained how the township's surplus monies have enabled it to do certain projects without asking residents to pay more in taxes.

"We had the money to build (the new township hall) without going to the taxpayers like the schools (do) for every new thing that they need," Bellairs said.

Bellairs also expressed her concern that the township could incur some unforeseen expenses related to the change in its tuition reimbursement policy, which she noted Dunn voted in favor of.

Employees who further their education by taking "approved courses . . . that directly benefit their township position" are now eligible for various levels of tuition reimbursement from the municipality based on the grades they receive.

For instance, an employee who receives an 'A' in a course is eligible for 100 percent reimbursement for that class, whereas a 'B' earns 75 percent and a 'C' means 50 percent payment.

Bellars worried that if every township employee wants to go back to school, it could have a big impact on the budget.

As for the safety path issue brought up by Dunn, Bellairs explained that when she was campaigning for office in 2008, the residents she talked to weren't opposed to safety paths, they were opposed to paying an additional tax to finance them.

"They really wanted safety paths," she said. "They just didn't want (more taxes) They wanted it with what (the township was) collecting now."