Friday, June 03, 2011

A tax increase by any other name is still a tax increase

[Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2011 edition of Ferndale Friends] 

I was just getting ready to write, “Boy, I’m glad THAT’S over,” when I realized the 21-38% city property tax increase won’t really be over until Dec 31, 2015.  That’s when the extra mills (up to 5.4552) will expire.

I wonder if that’s what voters expected would happen in 1994 when they approved 7-mills for a school bond for facility improvements.  Or if they thought the 7-mills renewed in 2004 would expire in 2012, or if they’ll think the 7-mills they’ll likely be asked to pass next February will expire.

Perhaps they’ll never expire.  Of course, to politicians, renewals aren’t tax increases.  Once you get taxpayers into the habit of paying taxes there’s little sense in breaking them from it, or even worse, let them expire and have to start from scratch.

But don’t take my word for it.  On May 11, Ferndale School’s superintendent Gary Meier told The Ferndale Patch, “We have a window of opportunity here to maximize our bond capacity and do so without a tax increase.  If we move beyond this window, we lost both capacity and the ability to have it be a no new taxes issue. [sic]”

It’s like a banker extending your mortgage a few years, but telling you it’s a good thing because you won’t notice any difference in your expenses.

But the question isn’t whether or not these are tax increases.  Instead it’s what is the seven-year plan for the district?  Will it have more or fewer students?  How many more or fewer and what is that estimate based on?  Will the district require the same number of buildings?  Or even, will the Ferndale School District still exist in seven years as it does today or will it consolidate with one or more of its neighbors to become a larger, more efficient, lower-administrative-overhead-per-student district offering even more educational opportunities than it does today?

Taxpayers will also be interested to find out what happened to the high school asbestos abatement the 2004 bond was supposed to pay for, and why is the board asking for another $14 million, for which the “biggest improvement” is asbestos abatement in the high school.

Most residents favor safe schools.  But many residents are also likely to favor knowing why the 2004 abatement wasn’t completed, or if it was, did the contractor not lift a ceiling tile? If they did, why was asbestos allowed to remain in the high school another seven years?

It’s hard to be certain in Ferndale, but there is something at least 47 other Michigan school districts are doing to help their taxpayers be certain—they’re putting their checkbooks online.

One-in-six Michigan school children attend classes in districts, including Berkley and Royal Oak, where anyone can visit the district’s websites and see who the checks are being written to.  Even better, at some districts you can see exactly where they money is coming from.

In Ferndale, it would be especially interesting to know where the district gets its money and where it spends it.  Especially especially (two especially-s are more especial than one especially) because the district is studying the purchase of the 34-acre Hayes-Lemmerz site immediately south of the high school for just under $1 million, and is prepared to spend another $7.5 million to renovate the buildings. 

Taxpayers should wonder to themselves, “If it takes 7-mills perennially renewed to maintain the buildings the district has now, how much more will be required to maintain whichever buildings remain on the site after the renovation?” or “If the student population is falling (as it has for 20+ years), who are the new buildings for?” or maybe, “Are the new buildings needed to generate revenue by diverting even more adult-ed income?”

Whatever the new cost will be (and ignoring where the $8.5 million came from and why it hasn’t already been being spent on students) we can be confident it’ll only be a tax increase the first time.  After that it’ll just be a renewal.

Going back to May 3 (remember May 3?  It’s a song about May 3), I was contacted by a reporter asking if I attended the victory party with the other pro-millage folks or if I had celebrated elsewhere.

“Celebrated?”  I asked.  “I don’t think increasing my neighbors’ taxes or needing to in the first place is anything worth celebrating.”

That quote didn’t make the article.

I still feel that way, and I don’t remember ever casting so distasteful a vote as I did on May 3.

And that was the easy part.

The hard part will be making sure city council spends the money in a manner commensurate with the narrow 198… er… I mean… 197-vote margin—which is to say frugally.

To make that job easier it would be helpful if the city had its checkbook online so residents and press could see where they money is going.  For instance, how quickly do you think you could find out how much money the city spent on the Withington lot screening wall, or software, or Plante Moran consultants, or furniture, or its labor attorney?

You could file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and the clerk’s or city manager’s office would hunt down and organize the information for you, or you could try searching and reading minutes from previous council meetings online, or even watch video of meetings over the internet.

But wouldn’t it just be easier to download a spreadsheet?  Certainly it would if each disbursement included the item it was for, which fund it came from, and the date the expenditure was approved by council.

I think this would be a great campaign issue for a council or mayoral candidate to take up—and to deliver—after they’re elected.

Oh, and I almost forgot, the ability to do math is always a good qualification as well.

If you have questions about transparency, the sources for this article, or have comments about it, you may write Tom at

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