Berkley Meets at a Crossroads
Participants in a town hall meeting Tuesday night to discuss the Municipal Operating, Police and Fire Millage Proposal agree its fate will shape the city's future.
Editor's note: Berkley Patch will follow this story with a more in-depth financial report, as well as stories focused on supporters and opponents of the millage request.
There was one thing everyone could agree on Tuesday night during a town hall meeting to discuss the Municipal Operating, Police and Fire Millage Proposal: The city of Berkley is at a crossroads.
Proponents of the millage proposal said the fate of city services and employees is in voters' hands Aug. 7, while opponents of the 3-mill Headlee Override said the measure's lack of a sunset provision would allow the tax increase to remain in place in perpetuity.
The Headlee Amendment, approved by Michigan voters in 1978, prohibits local governments from adding new taxes — or increasing existing ones — without voter consent. Berkley's proposed Headlee Override would cover operating costs for the Public Safety Department, Public Library, Public Works Department, parks, sanitation and other services.
'We come to a crossroads'
City Manager Jane Bais-DiSessa opened Tuesday night's meeting, which was held at the Community Center and attended by approximately 50 people, and then handed the microphone to Finance Director David Sabuda, who made the city's financial case for the proposal via a slideshow presentation.
Sabuda reviewed the city's operating tax history, outlined its current financial situation and made some projections about the near future. Much of the information is available on the city's website (or, see the attached PDFs).
After a brief address by Mayor Phil O'Dwyer, participants were invited to speak with representatives from each of the city's departments, who were stationed at tables around the room.
"The blizzard of numbers (presented by Sabuda) actually represent people," O'Dwyer said. "They're about us. They're about our town. Our library. Our Public Safety Department. Our roads. Our Parks & Recreation (Department). The services that we enjoy in our town.
"Now, we come to a crossroads," he said. "We have cut and cut every year until we have come to a point where there is no more to cut. If you are asking me if we can balance the budget, yes, we can.
"We can close Parks & Rec. We can close the ice arena," O'Dwyer said. "We can reduce our Public Safety Department by one, two, three, whatever."
But, he warned, such actions also would reduce property values and compromise residents' quality of life.
"Nobody wants to live in a community with all that shrinkage," he said.
Residents have mixed opinions
Donna Kelley, who has lived in Berkley for 24 years, said she came to the meeting to find out why the city is asking for a millage increase.
"I learned that it's necessary to maintain our services," she said. "All the nice things that make Berkley Berkley."
But Bill Walker, who has lived in the city for 26 years, felt differently.
"I'm for a small tax increase," he said. "I know what's going on. I see the numbers. But this going on with no sunset, I can't swallow.
"My neighbors are against this," Walker said. "They're furious. Unemployement is still high. What are we? Eight, nine percent? Unemployment is still high in Berkley."
Michigan's unemployment rate was 8.6 percent in June, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Walker added that he would have preferred a 2-mil increase for 2 to 3 years.
"Things are turning around," he said. "It would have been easier to swallow if there were a sunset."
The Headlee Amendment has a built-in rollback clause.
"Headlee requires a local unit of government to reduce its millage when annual growth on existing property is greater than the rate of inflation," according to the Michigan Municipal League. "As a consequence, the local unit's millage rate is 'rolled back' so that the resulting growth in property tax revenue, community-wide, is no more than the rate of inflation."
The 15-person Citizens Advisory Committee, whose members were appointed by the City Council and mayor, briefly disccused a sunset clause but decided against it in a close vote, committee chairman Marc Herron said. He was the only committee member who opposed the millage proposal.
Herron said he was disappointed in the town hall meeting's format Tuesday night, having expected a traditional question-and-answer session with officials that would have allowed him to gauge voters' mood.
The setup worked out for Tony Priemer, who was able to have a one-on-one talk with Finance Director Sabuda about why his taxes have gone up each year since 2002.
"I was thinking maybe I was the Average Joe," Priemer said. "And, if everybody's taxes go up every year, why are they asking for the money?"
But, he found out that he was among only approximately 25 residents in a similar situation, Priemer said.
"I can see the need for the services they want to keep providing and I don't mind paying for it," he said. "I love living here. I've been here almost 20 years. I have fantastic neighbors.
"I think we live in a real safe community and I guess I'm willing to pay a little more to keep that going," Priemer said. "I'm happy. I'm a happy resident. Just needed a little more information and I got it."
Millage Proposal Basics
- What: The Municipal Operating, Police and Fire Millage Proposal would levy a 3-mill Headlee Override to cover operating costs for the Public Safety Department, Public Library, Public Works Department, parks, sanitation and other services.
- When: The millage request will appear on Berkley residents' Aug. 7 ballots.
- Why: A 15-member Citizens Advisory Committee cited declines in property tax values and state revenue-sharing funds, as well as rising costs, when it recommended the millage request.
- Cost: The proposal equals $3 per thousand dollars of taxable value, which the city estimates will cost the average Berkley homeowner an extra $175 each year. The millage would raise $1,362,000.
- What else: If approved, residents would see the millage in their 2013 summer property tax bills. If the millage is defeated, the city will have to make cuts that could include leaf pickup, tree replacement, some street repairs, code enforcement, library hours and programs, Parks & Recreation programs and Public Safety officers.
- More information: Visit the city of Berkley's website or call City Manager Jane Bais-DiSessa at 248-658-3350.
Editor's note: A clarification of the Headlee Amendment's rollback clause was added to this story.