When Can A Win be a Losing Proposition?

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners had a big win on November 7.  The somewhat controversial ballot issue for a combined mental health and public safety millage passed rather spectacularly.  As related by the Ann Arbor News, it won by nearly a 2-1 margin.

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We had complained a great deal about this ballot measure.  As explained at length in Hair on Fire in Ann Arbor, the inclusion of a “rebate” to certain county communities seemed questionable, made the measure unnecessarily complicated, and added a layer of strangeness in that the Ann Arbor City Council promptly passed a measure announcing how they would spend the windfall.

We also noted in Taxes and the Local Government Quandary that a change in language at the last minute made this into a vehicle to distribute taxes on some municipalities to others.  The purported reasoning behind the rebate was to acknowledge that municipalities who tax themselves for their own police forces were being taxed twice.  The idea, then, would be to repay them according to their tax base (ad valorem).  But this was altered to make the payment on the basis of population.  According to the report in the Ann Arbor News, the device was invented by CM Chuck Warpehoski and Commissioner Conan Smith.  The intent and effect was to transfer additional funds to the City of Ypsilanti, presumably in an effort to provide “equity”.  (Ypsilanti is perennially revenue-short.)

My concern was that all this complication might cause the millage to fail at the ballot box.  But that fear was not realized.  The voters, at least those in the eastern more urbanized section of the County, endorsed it heartily.  In spite of two groups opposing the millage, the win was more than its supporters had imagined.  As quoted by the Ann Arbor News,

“Tonight, the people of Washtenaw County recognized the need to adequately fund mental health and public safety,” County Board Chairman Andy LaBarre, D-Ann Arbor, said in a statement after the results were reported.

Regional Issues

Distribution of votes for and against the millage proposal, as shown by Washtenaw County. Note that most townships in the western part of the County voted No.

But there are some regional implications in any County-wide vote.  With their heavy voter numbers, the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township, can often carry a measure. This can create a classic urban-rural split, where the townships that don’t use services intensively may resist being taxed to provide them to others.  As we noted earlier, many of these rural townships keep their own operating millages to a bare minimum.  The fact that much of the land being taxed is agricultural probably adds an edge to this.  If you are operating a business that requires tens or hundreds of acres, each tax increment is a direct hit on your livelihood.

There was another indication at the BOC meeting that there might be some regional strains. According to the Ann Arbor News, the vote was only 5-4 in favor to put this on the ballot.  Evidently only the Ann Arbor commissioners, together with the representatives from Northfield and Pittsfield Townships (both are relatively urban and will receive a rebate), voted for it.  Even the Ypsilanti commissioners did not support it, nor did the commissioners from the western townships.

This raises a common question in governance: is winning the question by majority rule the only consideration? When is it more important to accomplish a goal regardless of opposition by a substantial minority and when is it instead important to reach a consensus?  Should we be concerned when such a geographical divide exists on a particular issue? Is it worthwhile to try to find an approach which will at least not lead to a revolt as this one has?  These questions are at the heart of the question of what regional governance should mean.  In my opinion, it is better to avoid cultivating a deep well of resentment between localities.  It should never be a “I win, you lose”.

Legal Questions

From the beginning, there have been those who questioned the legality of this ballot measure.

Former County Commissioner Dan Smith circulated a message prior to the election with a number of reasons that the measure could fail a legal test (Smith is not an attorney).  These are his points, verbatim.

  • Michigan law states that a millage proposal must state a “purpose,” which is something like constructing a new building or paying for police/fire protection. I don’t think that allocating funds to jurisdictions which maintain their own police force is a “purpose.”
  • Local government can only spend taxpayer funds on things which are authorized (or fairly implied) by state law. There is no provision for the county to simply give money to another municipality (or anyone else, for that matter).
  •  The “refund provision” results in non-uniform taxation as those municipalities w/o a police department are paying a higher tax rate than those which get the refund; this also violates current interpretations of “equal protection” in both the U.S. and Michigan constitutions.
  •  The refund provision also violates Article IX Section 6 of the Michigan constitution as those municipalities WITH a police department are experiencing a tax increase (the amount of the refund) without the qualified voters of JUST that municipality voting on it.
  •  Similarly, this could be an end-run around Charter tax limits, Ypsilanti (and maybe others) is already levying the maximum under its charter.

To all who questioned these points, BOC Chair Andy LaBarre assured the public that the Corporation Counsel, Curtis Hedger, had not only reviewed the measure, but had consulted an expert in ballot language.  (The Corporation Counsel advises the BOC and the County Administrator, but does not communicate directly with the public.)

We’ll See You in Court

The champagne bottles had barely made it to the recycling bin before the next step was announced. The news report from the WEMU radio station revealed that the question of legality has not been dropped.

WEMU interviewed Harley Rider, the Supervisor of Dexter Township, who announced that he would be part of a coalition who will challenge the ballot measure in court.  When we reached Rider today, he stressed that he is joining what he expects to be a “bi-partisan” coalition as a private individual, not in his role as a township official.  He says that there is not yet a formal, named group but it is obvious that the process is full of energy.

This is not the first time the County has been sued over a tax issue.  While the matter was never completely resolved, a previous suit did not prevail.   The County had levied a tax without a vote of the people in 2015 and 2016.  As the Washtenaw County Road Commission notes, that tax made it possible to improve many county roads, but its legality was questionable.  The BOC dropped that idea after they were sued and put an issue on the ballot in November 2016, when it passed handily.   They were also moved to drop the “Act 88 millage” which was similarly imposed using a somewhat novel theory.   (Ann Arbor News report)  It seems that some commissioners just can’t quite leave alone venturing into deep waters as far as taxation is concerned.

NOTE: Of course, we do not know how any court case will be resolved, nor has an argument been set forth by the parties.  This account is not intended to prejudge the result and it will likely be months before we know more.  But it would have been desirable to avoid this conflict.  The County needed a “win-win”.

Explore posts in the same categories: civic finance, politics, Regional

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