November 28, 2014

Cool response in Omer to fire assessment idea

By Kevin Bunch
Staff Writer | news@arenacindependent.com
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OMER — Members of the Omer City Council do not like the special assessment idea brought forth by Omer Arenac Fire Chief Brian Leja to help finance the department.

Leja, looking for a way to finance the department’s purchases at a time when the state is cutting shared revenue to local municipalities, proposed levying a $36 special assessment, similar to how garbage pick-up is financed, on each household that has property within the two municipalities. As a special assessment, it would not go out for a public vote, but rather a series of public hearings would be held on it.

Leja brought the idea before the Omer council, the Arenac Township board, and the fire department board. Currently the department is financed entirely from the township and city’s respective general funds.

Discussing the proposal at the May 22 council meeting, Councilman Larry Daly said he opposed the assessment idea, looking at it as a tax that residents have little say in.

“I’m not for assessing people; it’s a backdoor way of taxing them,” Daly said. “The idea is good, we need the money, but that’s sneaking the back way in. We should figure out how much we need and do a millage.”

“It’s a lot easier to say we need three quarters of a mill,” Daly added.

Councilwoman Jill Eyre said she was not sure the idea was even legal under special assessment rules, which require a specific group of people to be charged the assessment, which would then be used for very specific things.

Eyre also said she did not like the funding numbers Leja put together, which project how much money the department would be able to use for major equipment purchases. She believed they did not account for all of the costs that would come up.

Furthermore, Leja told the council the proposal would reduce the amount of money the city and township would need to put into the fire budget, a claim Eyre was skeptical of after looking over the proposed finances. She told Leja at the May 8 meeting she did not believe it would raise enough money for the major purchases, and he said the department would still seek grants to help.

“You (the city) don’t have money, the township doesn’t have money, so we have to figure out a way to make it work,” Leja said at the May 8 meeting. “The city and the township are supposed to put money away for big purchases, but the money is just not there.”

Councilman Robin Berry attended the fire board’s meeting May 10, and told them he was not happy with the proposal. Berry said Leja would have to detail out what it would precisely finance, and have the money in a separate account entirely. Even then, Berry said he does not like special assessments and would prefer a normal millage proposal.

Arenac Township Clerk Cindy Halamar told the Independent while the state allows municipalities to assess money without a public vote up to a certain amount, the township board did not like that idea, and was more interested in putting it up on the ballot.

“With all of our funds being cut, it’s hard to make the right decisions and make everyone happy,” Halamar said. “So we’ll see what happens.”

Officials aside, the assessment idea has other hurdles to overcome. County Clerk Rick Rockwell said while he believed the municipalities could create a special assessment district, it would be subject to a referendum with enough voter support.

Furthermore, Catherine Mullhaupt, spokeswoman with the Michigan Township Association, said it would require two public hearings so the residents facing the assessment can be heard, and would need to be expressed in mills rather than a flat fee.

Leja’s proposed assessment would raise an estimated $29,000 a year, while reducing the funding from the city and township by 33 percent, or roughly $9,850. It would also be adjusted every 10 years for inflation.

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