Mich. fire chief begs FF-medics not to quit before millage vote's possible layoffs
If voters in Bloomfield Township vote no on the upcoming millage vote, a projected 22 firefighter-paramedics could lose their jobs
Detroit Free Press
BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — It’s a sign of our era — when countless Americans distrust government — that firefighters in one of Michigan’s most affluent communities worry about a millage vote next month.
If most voters in Bloomfield Township vote no, as they did for a police-and-fire measure with a bigger price tag last year, a projected 22 firefighter-paramedics could lose their jobs, Fire Chief Mike Morin says.
That fear has pushed younger troops to think about leaving. And because they're highly trained, they’d be snatched up quickly by cities like Sterling Heights, Morin said. Last week, the chief met with employees from all three shifts, imploring them not to leave — not yet — but instead to see what the voters do.
Seeing what voters do on March 10 is on the minds of countless public employees, from fire halls to school rooms, as communities across Oakland County and Michigan prepare to approve or defeat tax measures.
Michiganders may be thrilled to vote for presidential candidates on March 10. But their lives, lifestyles and the property values of their homes may depend more on local vote tallies for services such as firefighting and EMS, and for school-funding measures.
Nearly all ballot measures on Oakland County ballots are renewals of existing property taxes, like the Bloomfield Township question. Another example? The tax to aid the Detroit Institute of Arts, on all ballots in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties. In Huntington Woods, however, there's a tax increase on ballots and it might confuse some voters. The wording calls for creating a pension and retirement system for police and firefighters. Yet, officials say their goal is to free up money in the city budget to accelerate road repairs.
School officials across Oakland County say their bond proposals and millage measures won't hike taxes but instead would keep tax rates at the same or less than they are now. Still, with many voters turned diehard skeptics by years of anti-tax talk radio and tea party campaigning, no city, township or school board can be sure of an outcome on election day.
With the exception of Southfield schools, which seeks to renew its operating funds, all of Oakland's ballot measures are aimed at funding big renovations or building new facilities, including a new elementary school in Ferndale.
By law, the proceeds from bond sales, as well the cash flows from so-called "sinking fund" taxes, can't be used for mere maintenance of existing buildings and equipment, nor for salaries and other operating expenses.
In Oakland County, major school improvements would come from a $195-million bond listed on ballots in the Birmingham school district, to begin the district's first major renovation since 2003; a $147-million bond measure for Pontiac schools, paired with a five-year sinking-fund millage measure; a $98-million bond in the Farmington district; and a $124.8-million bond sale in Ferndale that includes money to replace the district's antiquated K-2 elementary school, which would welcome a swelling flock of enrollees who are offspring of millennials — parents now in their mid-20s to late 30s.
Right now, southeastern Michigan enjoys boom times and high employment, prompting school districts and local governments to play catch up, following more than a dozen years of under-investment and staff cuts, said Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonpartisan think tank.
The need to renovate and reinvest is coupled with this era’s ultra-low interest rates, Lupher said. That’s made bond sales a smart way to borrow, he said, pointing to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan for funding state road repairs, and to the school bond measures on numerous ballots across Michigan.
School bond amounts have grown, as districts decided they must buy costly security gear to gird against school shootings. Friday — Valentine’s Day — was the two-year anniversary of a gunman’s deadly shooting spree at a high school near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, that left 17 dead and 17 injured.
Other school wish lists include better equipment for teaching STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — as well as new facilities to stay competitive in athletics, plus the need to replace basics such as school buses, new roofs and boilers.
In Oakland County, school bond measures are riding an “up” escalator, totaling $198 million in 2018; $683 million in 2019; and this year a mighty $1 billion, if measures on the March 10 ballot are added to those already set for the May 5 election.
The pink rock stays
In the Birmingham Public Schools, voters approved a millage renewal last fall whose proceeds are earmarked for salaries and day-to-day operating expenses, said Anne Cron, director for communications and family engagement. Residents need to hear that the millage renewal is entirely separate from the March bond proposal, which can't go toward salaries.
The bond measure on March ballots would, in part, build "an auxillary gym at both of our high schools — we're one of the few districts that don't have two gyms for each high school," Cron said. A second gym gives more space for phys-ed classes during the school day, then sports-team training after school and community programs at night.
The district would also do renovations at every campus, although it would make major improvements to expand Bingham Farms Elementary, Cron said.
"Overall, enrollment is dropping but our projections are seeing a pocket" of incoming kindergartners, she said, echoing the rationale behind Ferndale's plan for a new, larger elementary building to accommodate the baby boomlet of Millennial families.
Here's a comfort: Plans to upgrade Birmingham's tennis courts and athletic fields behind Seaholm High School won't require removing the student body's pink-painted "spirit rock," Cron said. She quipped, "If we did that, I think there would be quite an uprising."
Near the top of the ballot language for Ferndale Public Schools is the pledge to replace Roosevelt Elementary, built in 1921, with a new building on a larger lot. That will allow more space for parking as well as for a bigger playground, safer parental drop-off and pick-up zones and larger classrooms — to accommodate more K-2 kids, Communications and Pupil Services Director Bill Good said.
"We're actually going to be cutting back on our school of choice numbers because our elementary school enrollment is going up," Good said.
Ferndale school officials say the millage rate on homes to repay the bonds "is projected to remain at or below the 2019 rate of 7.00 mills."
'Don't jump ship'
In Bloomfield Township last week, a dozen firefighters sat in the headquarters' training room, and others patched in via TV screens at branch fire halls, as Chief Morin shared their worries about the community's March millage question. Tax questions are nearly always debate fodder, but they've spurred bitterly differences in some communities, including Bloomfield Township.
“My biggest fear is, I have 10 of you guys jump ship before the election,” Morin said Friday.
“If this goes down, yes, I lose $2-1/2 million a year, and I lose 22 of you. I’m just hoping that our residents want us to continue with the level of service you guys give. You know and I know, we are the health care for the residents of this township,” he said.
The township's millage question is a renewal of an existing tax, needed to pay for firefighters and firefighter-paramedics, Morin and the police chief have said. Opponents say it's money that could be found elsewhere in the township budget, which they insist is larded with waste — the same charge leveled in Lansing by opponents of raising taxes to pay for road repairs.
The chief looked solemnly at his troops.
"There's a lot of worries — families, kids, car payments, mortgages. I get it," he said, raising his voice over a dispatcher’s words, crackling from a speaker. That brought two firefighters to their feet and they dashed from the room.
In August, Bloomfield Township voters defeated a police-and-fire "special assessment district " — a ballot measure more costly than the 10-year operating renewal on March ballots. Afterward, Morin said he'd followed through on the township supervisor's pre-election statement: that they would cut the fire staff by six to eight positions, "by attrition," if the assessment failed.
"We are down four positions so far and there are two more retirements planned this year," leaving vacancies that won't be filled, Morin said.
The department had 74 personnel in 1989; it has 61, now while handling 270% more runs per year, the lion's share for emergency medical response, he said.
Seeing things from an opposite pole is Don Valente, a lawyer who served last year as treasurer of a campaign to defeat the township's more costly police-and-fire measure. It would’ve created a special assessment district, or SAD, to establish a long-term funding source for public safety retirement costs, giving relief to the general budget, Township Supervisor Leo Savoie said at the time.
Last week, Valente sent an email blast that misidentified Fire Chief Morin with the police chief’s name, as Valente criticized Morin's speech at the Feb. 20 township board meeting:
“Fire Chief Phil Langmeyer. . . used the ceremony for firemen awards to repeat Savoie’s lies about cutting positions if the new tax fails (although this same fool & scare tactic was used during the August SAD Tax campaign when they said 8 fire positions would be cut, but none were).
“More lies — just from another mouth — to appeal to voters’ emotions, not your intelligence — for their overspending of your money, their empire building & benefits.
“Are our public servants incompetent or intentionally trying to deceive us? Either way, we must VOTE and VOTE 'NO' on their repeated tax. . ."
Reached Saturday, Valente, a 45-year township resident, said he'd sent a flyer opposing the millage to 7,000 addresses and soon would send another. He also has paid for numerous yard signs, he said. Valente said he did not know how passing the March millage would affect his own taxes.
"But the money isn't the issue for me. It's the principle. I've spent more money doing what I'm doing than I would save the rest of my life" if the millage fails, Valente said.
Tale of two taxes
Six miles south of Bloomfield Township’s main fire hall, and another six miles east, is a smaller community but with very similar affluence. Huntington Woods has roughly the same median family income as the township — about $130,000 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The education level is similar, too, with about 80% of residents possessing either a bachelor’s or graduate degree.
There, the similarities end. The small town of just 6,300 residents, according to SEMCOG, is far more liberal: 77% of voters supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, compared with 49% of those in Bloomfield Township. In Huntington Woods, millages almost always pass.
Still, the question there on March ballots could easily confuse voters, perhaps enough to trigger “no” votes. Labeled “Fire Fighters and Police Officers/Pension and Retirement System Proposal,” the question asks voters to approve a 25-year levy of no more than 3.0 mills, which sounds clear enough.
Yet, according to Mayor Bob Paul, the proposal — although it can’t say so — is actually a road-funding measure. It aims to shift retirement spending out of the city’s general budget, allowing Huntington Woods to rebuild its roads using general fund money, Paul said.
In a letter, published in the Free Press on Feb. 6, the mayor wrote: “We have determined that if we could move a current regular expense for public safety pensions out of our budget and have them covered by (the millage on the March ballot), we could free up funds to devote to our roads — and other important infrastructure needs."
He went on to say that the plan was the brainchild of 27 residents on a budget committee, who heard from road engineers and learned that about half of the roads in the city were in, officially, “poor” condition. If the plan passes, property taxes on the average house in the upscale city would rise “by less than $500 a year,” the mayor concludes.
He voices his support as “a necessary and low-cost way to resolve many infrastructure challenges.” Once the roads of improved, the wording of the ballot question allows the annual cash flow to go toward other needs.
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