Nov. 2 2011 12:00 AM

Millage: Part deux

For the second time in six months,
Lansing voters will be asked to support an increase in the city’s
operating millage rate to bolster revenue for police and fire
protection as well as local road maintenance. All eight City Council
candidates support it.

Voters shot it down 52 percent to 48 percent May. What will they say this time? 

While the city is asking for the same 4-mill increase —
which would raise the city’s operating millage rate from 15.44 to 19.44
— this proposal stands to generate $7.6 million instead of $8 million,
which is what would have been generated in May. Also, this money would
go toward the next fiscal year budget and not affect any of those
departments’ budgets until July 1, 2012. The proposed increase
represents a $4 increase for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value.

The proposal would allow the city to override the Headlee
Amendment for five years, allowing it to raise the taxing capacity to
20 mills. The cap is slightly above 19.1 mills. Theoretically, the
Council could raise the operating millage rate by about 3.7 mills
without voter approval, but no Council member or candidate has pledged
he or she will do that if this proposal fails.

This proposal also differs from May’s because dollar
amounts are allocated specifically for police, fire and road
maintenance: 1.5 mills each for police and fire (or $2.85 million) and
1 mill (or $1.9 million) for local road maintenance.

Some critics of the millage in May, such
as 3rd Ward Council candidate Jason Wilkes, have said they were
skeptical about voting yes because they were concerned the revenue
wouldn’t ultimately go to those services, but elsewhere in the General
Fund budget. The Council approved a non-binding resolution the night
before the May 3 special election saying it would be used for those

However, similar to the circumstance in May, the city is
anticipating another budget deficit for the next fiscal year — to the
tune of $12 million to $15 million. To balance this fiscal year’s
budget shortfall, the city laid off 36 police officers and 11
firefighters and closed three fire stations. Eleven of those police
positions were recently filled with a federal grant.

Because property taxes are calculated by
the taxable value of a house — which have largely been on the decline —
Mayor Virg Bernero said recently that, like with the May proposal, most
property owners won’t see a net tax increase on their property.

“A significant amount of misinformation about this
millage has been circulating. It’s been characterized by some as the
largest tax increase in history, but most homeowners would see a lower
property tax bill even with the millage,” he told the City Council Oct.
24. On that same night, the Council unanimously approved a non-binding
resolution that says it “fully and enthusiastically” supports the

Some political observers said the first try failed because millage supporters did not target absentee voters soon enough.

“I think the public safety millage will
do better than it did before,” said Todd Cook, a Democratic political
consultant with Lansing-based Main Street Strategies. “The most likely
scenario is that it squeaks out a win. (Supporters) have been more
aggressive working the absentee vote than last time.”