April 20 2011 12:00 AM

The outcome of the May 3 ballot proposal to increase Lansing’s property tax millage by 4 mills is anybody’s guess. Opposition appears strong on the south side.


Dale Schrader said he has an unusual
perspective on the ballot proposal that is before Lansing voters.
Schrader, an Old Town resident, owns 10 properties in the city, most of
which he has fixed up and rents.

On May 3, Lansing voters will decide if
the city should raise the operating millage rate by 4 mills, generating
an estimated $8.5 million of new revenue for police, fire and roads
services. Major cuts are proposed to those three services in light of a
projected $20 million deficit for the next fiscal year, but the millage
would help restore some of those services. City officials also say that a
majority of homeowners — roughly two-thirds — won’t see a net increase
on their property tax bills next year even with the millage. 

Schrader estimated the taxable value on
each of his properties will go up $150 if the millage passes. That means
Schrader could be paying $1,500 more to the city next year than he did
this year, he said. 

“This might be unusual for me to say, but
I’m actually for it (the millage). You can’t cut the Police and Fire
departments right now. Even though it’s painful (to pay more), it’s
important to me,” he said. “I think if we want to improve this city
everyone has to do their part.”

Schrader owns an environmental
remediation company based in Ithaca. He cleans up dilapidated or
contaminated properties, or both, for a living. One of them is the old
filling station in Old Town at the corner of Grand River and Capitol

But while Schrader said his opinion on
the ballot proposal is unusual — the Lansing Regional Chamber of
Commerce came out against the tax increase Tuesday, saying it hurts
businesses — it signifies what many see to be an uncertainty at this
point: Who will show up May 3 and how will they vote.

Of 22 people interviewed — from an
administrative assistant walking her dog on the south side to Mayor Virg
Bernero — no one seems to have a definitive sense of how this proposed
millage hike is going to pan out. (Of the 22, 10 said they support it,
eight said they are opposed, and four were undecided.)

Mark Grebner, chairman of the Ingham
County commissioners and founder of Practical Political Consulting in
East Lansing, said predicting outcomes of millage proposals — especially
when they stand alone on a ballot — is nearly impossible. It’s not so
cut and dry to be able to say people aren’t doing well financially,
therefore they won’t vote to increase their taxes.

“It turns out that millages held by
themselves have no continuity from one to the next,” he said. “You don’t
have a regular group of voters. You do have people who apply for
absentee ballots, but on Election Day, how many are going to show up (at
the polls)? And who will they be?”

While he generally assumes they will be
older, longtime residents of Lansing and property owners instead of
renters, he has “no idea” what the turnout will be.

“On the one hand, you have people who
don’t like to pay taxes, and (on the other) those who call the police
occasionally,” he said.

City Clerk Chris Swope has to estimate
the turnout to decide how many ballots to print and how many election
workers he will hire. 

“It’s almost impossible to predict,”
Swope said. “We don’t have any recent history of a special election on a
millage here in the city. We’re kind of gauging it might be similar to a
non-mayoral City Council election.” At the last one, in 2007, he said
7,000 voters turned out and another 3,500 voted by absentee ballot.

He said he is expecting a turnout of
10,000 to 23,000 of Lansing’s 81,963 registered voters. As of Friday,
Swope’s office had mailed out 4,099 absentee ballots and received 2,238.

Even then, you’re left with who is coming out to vote.

For Bernero, who is supporting the
millage, this is unchartered territory. It’s the first time he’s
campaigned for a tax increase. 

“This is a huge shift for me,” he said,
referring to the fact that he’s “actively supporting” a tax increase —
even working the phone bank for the Keep Lansing Safe campaign which is
countering the No More Taxes Committee. “I’ve never been through
anything like this (a $20 million deficit). I’ve been in politics a long
time,” the 47-year-old mayor said.

That fiscal uncertainty that Bernero says
was thrust upon the city due to falling property taxes and
state-sharing revenue is spilling into political uncertainty.

“I don’t know who will turn out,” he
said. When Bernero’s working the phone bank, “I’m hearing more that it
isn’t so much ‘what will it cost you?’ it’s ‘do you really need this?’”
he said. “I just remind them that it’s about the quality of life you
want. I’m not hiding any money.”

Peggy Vaughn-Payne, executive director of
NorthWest Initiative, a nonprofit in the 4th Ward that works with
low-income people, has a clear sense of what voter turnout will mean for
the election.

“It boils down to financially being able
to handle another expense if household income is cut,” Vaughn-Payne
said, referring to residents whose property taxes would increase if the
millage passes.

“Not to negate the importance of police
and fire, but an increase in taxes for those still hurting is still
real,” said Vaughn-Payne, who said she hasn’t decided how she will vote.
“The big thing in the end is who comes out to vote. If folks that are
hurting really come out, it’s going to be very interesting.”

“Everyone wants to have (strong police,
fire and roads), but it might be too much burden if they’re already
suffering,” she added. “It’s going to be a very interesting election.”

Lansing City Council regular John Pollard
is treasurer of the No Taxes Committee, while Penny Gardner is
treasurer of Keep Lansing Safe. Both are veteran campaign organizers and
are coordinating efforts to knock on doors and make phone calls.
Pollard led the successful opposition to a Lansing School District bond
drive in Lansing 10 years ago, but he came up short in campaigns against
the city’s parks millage renewal in 2005 and last year. 

Travel to the south side of Lansing and
you’ll find yourself in territory that could be a major player in the
election, political consultant Todd Cook said.

“The south side is a player because it
tends to be more older voters,” who he said are likely to turn out in
elections. “If it (the millage) fails, you’d have to see a significant
number of no votes on the south side.”

However, Cook said that doesn’t
necessarily mean a high south side turnout will mean the millage fails:
“To a certain extent, both campaigns have an interest in getting to the
south side.”

Of eight interviews conducted in three
days with residents south of Interstate 496, only one resident supports
the millage: Doris Collins, who lives near Everett High School and was
walking her Schipperke dog, Lily, on Sunday. Six others oppose the
millage, while another dog-walker near the Northrup and Cedar streets
intersection was undecided.

Gordon Wilson lived in Lansing for more
than 50 years but has since moved “to the other side of Waverly Road."
He was sitting in an office at the Southside Community Center Thursday.

“I don’t think the thing’s gonna pass.
Lansing can’t stand any more property taxes,” Wilson said. “The elderly
vote in Lansing. Young people don’t really vote. (Interstate) 496 is
just the dividing line.”

Up north to the 500 block of Foster
Avenue on the east side, next-door neighbors have opposing signs out
front. Jim Nelson, a sporting goods manufacturer, has the red and white
“Vote No More Taxes May 3rd” in his yard, while his next-door neighbor, a
retired “retail” employee who asked not to be identified, sports the
red, white and blue “Police Fire Roads Yes! Vote May 3” about 15 feet

Nelson, who has lived in Lansing for 25
years, is skeptical when Bernero says the Police and Fire departments
have to be cut so deeply — more than 100 employees and three fire
stations. Nelson thinks the city can cut back elsewhere and considers
himself a “common taxpayer.”

“I don’t know why people have so much
trust in the government. I don’t understand why people would voluntarily
increase their property taxes,” he said.

But Nelson’s neighbor, who has lived in Lansing for 30 years, understands, even though he is on a fixed income.

“I know that’s what they say. That’s how
they see it,” he said referring to those who believe the cuts should be
distributed elsewhere. “I don’t think we can stand to lose the

Nelson’s neighbor is reserved and quiet,
accepting the fact that many these days — thanks in large part to the
Tea Party movement — are fixated on keeping taxes low. His tactic is to
just do his part: “A guy came by here the other day (with vote yes
signs). I thought it’d balance out my neighbor.”