Meridian Township seeks tax millage for fire and police, pensions

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Steven Maier

Almost half of the township's pension liability is unfunded. Most of it is owed to police and fire personnel. Image: Steven Maier.

The Meridian Township Board has added a new item to the upcoming ballot in August–a tax millage to fund the fire and police departments.

The proposal, voted through by the board on March 21, would add 1.483 mills to the annual tax collection if voted through. For a house that’s worth $100,000, that adds $148 to the tax collection for the year, and an added $2.5 million in annual revenue for the township.

That money would go towards the hiring of two additional personnel for each department, replacing equipment and paying down the township’s pension debt.

“That’s the big elephant in the room right now, is the pension liability,” said Phil Deschaine, one of the board trustees.

The township has $30 million worth of unfunded pension responsibilities and an obligation to pay it off. Almost two-thirds of the extra money collected would go towards doing just that.

Board supervisor Ron Styka said it was important that the millage is passed in August.

“It’s a necessity,” Styka said. “I’m very hopeful that our voters will see that and vote for it.”

The township has the money to cover about 55 percent of their pension obligations, according to township manager Frank Walsh. The average in the state of Michigan is 73 percent. Passing the millage would help the township fund the rest over the next ten years–a total of $41 million.

If they take 20 years, the added interest will result in an extra $15 million.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Walsh said.

The remaining third of the money raised will go towards addressing “systemic problems with our police and fire,” according to Deschaine–namely, underfunding. The number of Meridian police personnel falls well below the suggested ratio recommended by the Bureau of Justice.

The police department is looking to continue to swap out vehicles after three years of service. Image: Steven Maier.

Steven Maier

The police department wants to continue to swap out vehicles after three years of service. Image: Steven Maier.

The township collects 1.2 mills for police and fire, only enough to cover 20 percent of their combined budget. The other 80 percent has been coming out of the township’s general fund for years, Walsh said. In order to make ends meet, Deschaine said the township has had to limit overtime in other departments.

The extra funding for personnel and equipment come at a time of need for the police department, said Meridian police chief David Hall.

“For the officer’s backup, for the officer’s safety, we need more personnel,” Hall said.

Hall said that the township population and number of calls serviced by the department have gone up, while the number of sworn officers is the same as in 1995. This does not allow enough time for what he called “unobligated time,” which allows officers to patrol normally and investigate suspicious figures or vehicles–activities that he said were effective in preventing crime.

The funds would also allow both departments to update their equipment, including a new ladder truck for the fire department, which is now 15 years old, Meridian fire chief Fred Cowper told the board. The money will allow the police department to continue to swap their vehicles out at the rate recommended by the FBI, Hall said, as well as eventually invest in equipment that will allow them to investigate a growing number of identity and computer crimes.

The fire department is looking to replace a $1 million ladder truck in the next five years. Image: Steven Maier.

Steven Maier

The fire department is looking to replace a $1 million ladder truck in the next five years. Image: Steven Maier.

Not everyone is on board with the millage proposal. Neil Bowlby addressed the board at the March 21 meeting. Bowlby is president of the Liaison for Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, a local organization that grew out of citizen efforts to slow local development in the 1990s. He claims some of the numbers claimed by Walsh and Hall are not supported by data, and has concerns about whether the extra equipment funds are really needed. He is in support of the plan to pay off the pension debt.

Bowlby said the extra money would free up $700,000 a year from the township’s general fund, and wants to know more about where that money will go.

Hall disagrees with Bowlby, insisting that the numbers are supported, while Walsh said that every dollar of the extra money is accounted for.

Bowlby also said the situation was not as dire as the board makes it seem, and claims that the board depicts the fallout of a rejection in the vote in August as a surge of staff cuts and eventual bankruptcy.

“They paint the doom and gloom scenario,” Bowlby said.

If the millage is voted down, the board can come back the next year with “a more reasonable proposition,” he said.

The board declined to split the millage in two and introduce the pension funding as a separate collection, Styka said, because they see it as all one problem, with staffing problems leading to pension debt.

Millage or not, the township still has an obligation to the pension liability and will have to find ways to make those $1.5 million-a-year payments, Walsh said. The new equipment and additional personnel would have to wait. An estimated 15 to 20 township employees would have to be laid off.

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