Alpena County Commissioners seek ways to educate voters on Headlee

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Alpena County Equalization Director Ted Somers looks at a map of Alpena County while in his office on Thursday. In August voters in the county will vote on a tax proposal that will make up what the county lost from the Headlee rollback.

ALPENA — If voters do not approve the property tax increase Alpena County has proposed, there is a good chance it will return to the ballot in November.

At Thursday’s Alpena County Budget Committee meeting, the commissioners discussed how best to educate residents on the “Headlee rollback’s” impact on county finances and what cuts might be if the proposed tax hike fails.

A provision in the state constitution known as the Headlee Amendment automatically lowers local governments’ property tax rates — in what’s known as a “Headlee rollback” — if property values climb too fast, making it so property tax revenue growth cannot exceed the rate of inflation.

Governments can ask voters to override that automatic rollback so they can levy their full property tax rate.

The county is seeking a 0.7-mill increase, which would help the county recapture about $800,000 a year. The tax increase would be in place until voters approve a reduction or another hike.

As the August primary election nears, the Alpena County commissioners are scrambling to get information out that explains Headlee and how the loss of hundreds of thousands of property tax revenue has put the county deep into the red. The “Headlee rollup”, as the county refers to said tax proposal to be seen on the ballot, would raise the tax rate from 4.7749 mills to 5.48 mills, which restores the millage to its original rate from 1976 when voters approved that rate.

If the tax proposal fails in August, and possibly November, the commissioners will need to shave anywhere from $800,000 to $1.1 million from the expense side of the general fund budget, which would likely mean employees could lose their jobs and other services would be slashed.

Absentee voting in Michigan will open on June 27, so time is running thin for the county to engage with the public to explain the in-and-outs of Headlee and the potential ramifications if it fails.

The budget committee intended to draft a pair of budgets: one that included the tax revenue if the millage passed and another that included potential cuts if it failed. However, time has ticked away and there is no longer enough time to create the mock budgets.

The commissioners are going to begin meeting with department heads to go through the individual department budgets to see what cuts, if any, could be made.

The hope is a preliminary budget could be presented before the November election if the proposal doesn’t pass the first time.

At a previous budget committee meeting, commissioner Burt Francisco said cuts to any and all non-mandated positions or services may need to be considered if the proposal fails. With a large budget deficit projected, finding large chunks of money will be a challenge. Francisco said the largest expense is the sheriff’s office and said it would be unfortunate if the county had to cut road patrol deputies, but it may have to be considered if the millage is voted against.

While at the meeting, Sheriff Erik Smith said the commissioners needed to do a better job of communicating with the public about Headlee. He recommended the commissioners or other representatives engage with the many public organizations to explain why the tax increase is needed. He said there isn’t enough time to craft mock budgets now and the focus needs to be on educating voters.

“We need to start communicating with the community because if people are going to start voting next week that’s pretty tight,” Smith said. “We would be better off and talk to local groups and people so we can get this thing passed. People need the knowledge for what they are voting for. Right now, I don’t think we have that. If we don’t do that, I don’t have a lot of faith in this, to be honest with you.”

Early in the meeting, commissioner Bill Peterson proposed cutting the commissioners’ annual salary from $13,000 to $6,000. He said if the county is going to ask its taxpayers to make a sacrifice, then it makes sense they do too. He said a cut in the commissioners’ salary would be enough to save someone’s job down the road if the tax proposal fails.

“I would rather cut the commissioners’ wages and save a job somewhere,” he said. “It would save about $80,000 next year and that may be one deputy.”

For years, the commissioners haven’t given themselves raises as a way to help keep the budget deficit in check. Commissioner John Kozlowski said he is unsure cutting the salary of the commissioners is a good idea, because some of them are on fixed incomes and rely on the money. He said being a commissioner is close to having a full-time job because of the hours dedicated to meetings in Alpena and out of town, the meetings with staff, and all the other responsibilities they have.

“One of the things we always do when we start the budget is decide not to take raises,” Kozlowski said. “A lot of people complain about what we do, but they have no idea about what is involved and how much time we work. I literally gave up my full-time job to focus on the county. I’m more than willing to do what we need to do to help with the budget, but I don’t know how much it would really help if we took a decrease.”

Francisco, who is not running for reelection this year and will close out his term at the end of the year, said he would support a wage cut for himself if he were to remain on the board. He said that won’t be the case, however. Francisco added that cutting commissioners’ wages too much would likely lead to fewer people running as candidates for the gig.

The county is already struggling to get people to run for county positions as most races this year are uncontested.

“I think that is a probability because we are already having a difficult time without reducing the compensation, which really isn’t a lot,” he said. “I think it would limit the amount of people who want to endure this kind of activity knowing they would make even less, but expecting more of their time.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 or sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today