Taxes, millages lead slate of ballot questions on Nov. 7

Ingham County residents will face a bevy of ballot questions in November. From selling off city of Lansing property to a county wide millage increase, here’s what voters are being asked to approve:

Countywide

Facing an unexpected increase in retirement costs, combined with lagging property values and a state law capping the property tax on the new values, Ingham County commissioners are asking voters to approve a small increase in the property tax paid for county services. If the proposal is not approved in November, Ingham County Controller Tim Dolehanty said county residents could expect to see “drastic cuts” in services countywide. That includes possible cuts to rural road patrols by the Sheriff ’s Department, closure of part of the jail and elimination of some health department programs.

The proposal would restore Ingham’s millage rate to 6.8 mills, up from 6.3. If approved, a property with a taxable value of $50,000 will see an increase of just under $19 a year.

The county faced the funding gap this year by eliminating the equivalent of 31 full-time positions. It also tapped into the fund balance for $3.1 million. The fund is designed to allow the county to continue operations at times when money is tight or when there is a catastrophic event.

The county operates on a budget of about $233 million a year, and its guidelines call for having about 14 percent — roughly $32.6 million — in the rainy-day fund. As of the end of fiscal year 2018, the fund will be down to about $9 million.

The more money in that fund, the more financially stable the county is seen by credit agencies, Dolehanty said. But cutting into that fund could result in lowered credit ratings, he said. That in turn increases the costs taxpayers spend to pay back bonds on projects like last year’s animal shelter, road projects and drain projects.

Bulldog improvements

The Mason School District is asking voters to approve a $69.7 million bond proposal to fund expansions and improvements to the six schools there. The proposal will provide expanded and upgraded rooms in the district’s four elementary schools. The money will also be used to expand pick-up areas around the school, which in turn serves as an increased fire access route for emergency first responders.

At the middle and high school, bond dollars will be used to outfit students with new technology, increase the technology capacity at the schools, including better Wi-Fi and networking as well as servers. The money will also be used to upgrade the high school’s furniture.

All the schools in the district will see improvements in school security systems, including locking systems and video systems to monitor what is happening in the school, the district website reports.

East Lansing taxable questions

Voters in East Lansing will be asked to approve two ballot measures that are proving to be controversial. The first would impose a 1 percent income tax on residents and a half percent on those who work in the city but don’t live there. The second initiative would roll back property taxes slightly to offset some of the cost of the income tax.

The combined proposals could bring in an additional $5 million — captured mostly from Michigan State University workers.

That money, city leaders have said, is important to address a possible long-term debt crisis facing the city. That debt is mounting as a result of pension payments, like what happened in Lansing. Due to significant workforce cuts in previous years, there are fewer people paying into the pension system. That means the city has to subsidize more of the payments.

The income tax proposal is not popular with MSU administration leaders. President Lou Anna Simon tried to strike a deal with the city to pay $20 million over a set amount of years to offset the costs related to the town-gown relationship. But Mayor Mark Meadows battled those deals. When a proposal both could agree on was finally arrived at, Simon was unable to find support from the Board of Trustees to even consider the proposal. As a result, the income tax question stayed on the ballot.

The City Council is expected to vote next week on an exemption on student income below $5,000 a year.

And it’s not just MSU that’s upset.

Businesses in the city have also joined together and started a campaign encouraging voters to vote no in November. That coalition claims the city’s finances are out of order and, until that’s dealt with, it makes no sense to ratify a new tax.

Topping all that off, while the city has placed the income tax proposal on the ballot, the ordinance the question would approve has yet to be finalized. The City Council is still tinkering with what, if any, deductions low-income residents like the disabled, seniors and students would be eligible for to offset the tax.

That surcharge on cellphones, landlines and voice-over-Internet phones would find the 9-1-1 center.

Lansing questions

All of Lansing will decide whether to sell the historic Cooley-Haze House. The property, at 213 W. Malcom X St., played home to the Women’s Historical Museum until April.

After the museum vacated, the Lansing Parks Board appointed a special committee to consider the future of the building. That committee included Realtor Joe Vitale; Cassandra Nelson, a Lansing Historic District commissioner; Park Board member Paulette Carter-Scott and Park Board Chairwoman Veronica Gracia-Wing.

After reviewing the building’s history and structural integrity, the committee determined the building would be best served by transferring it to private ownership, Gracia- Wing said. Among the findings, the building requires extensive exterior upgrades, including scraping and repainting of the wood shingle exterior, replacement windows and an upgrade on the boiler. The known set of repairs could run in excess of $100,000, the report from the committee said.

Gracia-Wing and the committee, with approval of the Parks Board and the Planning Board, said any sale of the building should include an historic covenant.

Such a legal restriction would require the future property owner to maintain specific architectural aspects of the building, namely the roof line and the facade, while still qualifying for state and historic registration and tax credits.

It’s unclear what the building could bring if sold.

On the city’s far western edge, located in Eaton County, voters will decide whether they will pay $1.75 a month on their phone bills to fund 9-1-1 operations.

Eaton faced a similar financial smack with retirement payments as Ingham did this year. Eaton County commissioners, however, opted to eliminate rural road patrols rather than ask voters in the conservative county to approve a millage increase.