Changing of the Guard - County Commissioners Weigh In On the Future of Public Safety in the Age of the Tea Party

Posted In: Politics, Local,   From Issue 715   By: Mike Thompson

18th November, 2010     0

EDITOR’S NOTE:

For this in-depth report on Saginaw County law enforcement’s future based on the recent election, we endeavored to survey the 15 members of the Board of Commissioners. Fourteen responded, but we didn't hear from Ron Sholtz. Extended responses that did not fit into this article from the 14, along with Sheriff Bill Federspiel and Prosecutor Mike Thomas, can be found online at review-mag.com.)


Is it true that, “All politics is local?”

A Saginaw County election next May 4th for law enforcement will go a long ways toward determining whether or not our local politics reflects a national swing toward more conservative, anti-tax government.

Nothing is official, but the proposal from a majority on the split County Board of Commissioners’ likely will be in the range of a 1.5-mill property tax. That’s a little more than $50 for the owner of a $70,000 home, to prevent cutbacks not only in the Sheriff’s Department road patrols, but in other aspects of law enforcement – the county jail, the juvenile home, the prosecutor’s office, and judicial support staff.

If local Saginaw County politics reflected the national scene, it would seem that such a proposal would have no chance of passing. One can imagine Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh or a Fox News pundit flying into town to denounce yet another tax-and-spend scheme. County Democratic advocates would be about as popular as President Obama, or worse yet, Nancy Pelosi.

Yet at the same time, local voters have approved a string of four county tax renewals or increases and the county board retains a 9-6 Democratic majority. Obama and Pelosi would be much happier if they only had to govern Saginaw County.

“This was one of the most interesting factors in our elections both in August and in November,” says Cheryl Hadsall, a Democratic county board member and past chairwoman. “People overwhelmingly voted Republican (including Rick Synder over Virg Bernero for governor), and usually the Republican Party stands for no taxes and no tax increases. But at the same time, millages were approved for the Castle Museum, parks and recreation, the Event Center and animal control. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I guess it’s telling us that people just want to choose what they pay for, and they want value for their dollars.”

Of course, each of those proposals was for a fraction of 1 mill in property tax, while the law enforcement levy would cost more.

And there was no organized opposition, such as veteran Republican Pat Wurtzel and board newcomer Tim Kelly (also county GOP chairman) have mounted against a law enforcement increase.

“I will not support placing a public safety levy on the ballot because the Board of Commissioners cannot continue solving their budget problems on the backs of the taxpayer,” Kelly says.

“Nor should they continue to threaten the public with draconian cuts to public safety whenever they can't decide on other places in the budget to cut.  Saginaw County cannot tax their way out of the serious structural deficits that plague our county finances.  Hard decisions about other budgetary items, and the benefit packages of current and former employees, need to be addressed before the public should be asked to pay more in taxes.”

Republican Foes Challenge Board

Among the board’s Republicans, Wurtzel has served as spokesman for putting such a challenge on the table, even before Kelly won office in November.

Wurtzel sent to Review Magazine his entire proposed package of cuts, which we are publishing online at review-mag.com along with other extended viewpoints from elected officials that did not fit into this print article.

He goes beyond commissioner compensation and proposes cuts in conference travel for county officials. He adds reductions in staffing for the board’s support staff, for a sheriff’s grant writer, and for the clerk’s office.

The wide-ranging proposal, says Wurtzel, would amount to nearly $1 million in annual savings. A tax proposal next May would be intended to address a $6 million budget shortfall. Wurtzel acknowledges that his ideas would not solve the total problem, but he says the board should start by showing good faith with taxpayers.

Democrats have voted him down twice so far, and if he keeps raising the proposals, a string of Dem “no” votes could extend all the way until citizens go to the polls for the tax proposal next spring. This factor would challenge the smooth sailing for the other county millages that were approved.

Many commissioners continue to defend their pay and benefits, which add up to nearly $400,000 per year, ranging among the 15 members from $13,527 to $38,176.

Hadsall is a hair stylist who says she often works 14-hour days when her commissioner duties are added, and sacrifices income from her profession to serve 14,000 constituents. Without compensation, only wealthy people or retirees could afford to serve on the board, she asserts.

Democratic Board Chairman Michael O’Hare says commissioner pay should not be an issue in a public safety tax election

“I hear the criticism all the time, and it doesn’t make sense to me,” O’Hare says. “It’s the same as if I went to buy an automobile, and I said, ‘You know what? Paying the autoworker costs me more money.’ The Board of Commissioners is being picked on. We’ve taken enough cuts. We used to have gas mileage reimbursement for traveling back and forth, and we used to have longevity pay, but we have given up all of that. We’re cut to the bone. I will not approve a cut for the Board of Commissioners until the Controller, the Sheriff and the Prosecutor take similar cuts.”

Hadsall and other Democrats aren’t as fervent as O’Hare in this regard, but in summary they view the criticism as largely unfounded and a distraction from “real issues.”

“I’m not into this for the money,” says Moe Woods, a long-timer who similar to Hadsall, is self-employed as a barber and describes frequent calls for assistance from constituents as part of the job.

“I don’t see anybody getting rich on the county board,” adds Tim Novak, who says his service time on the county board essentially amounts to volunteerism. Compensation pays his family’s health insurance costs and nothing more, he says.

On the other hand, a Democrat with a newcomer’s insight is Susan McInerney, who ousted Democrat-turned-Republican Jim Graham with a door-to-door grassroots campaign that bucked the popular tide toward the GOP.

“I have heard (the criticism of commissioner comp a lot, too, and I think those are very valid comments,” McInerney says. “I think we have to look at the structure of the commissioners.”

At the same time, she says she will work for the public safety tax and that she does not fear voter backlash during the current Tea Party era.

“It’s all about educating the public. Education, education, education,” McInerney says.

“I’m not worried about anybody who might oppose me in two years. I’m in there to do what I can for Saginaw County now. If I only worry about two years from now, then I won’t be very efficient or effective.”

What Does ‘The CMU Survey’ Mean?

Sheriff Bill Federspiel enlisted a college political science instructor based at Central Michigan University, Doug Brown, to conduct a public opinion survey.

The result drew a headline: “Survey: County supports public safety tax.”

Indeed, a majority of respondents said they would back a millage. But when asked about the amount of money, 61 percent said they would endorse $20 per year, while only 5 percent said they would vote for $100.

The millage on the table, 1.5 mill, would cost virtually all property owners far more than $20.

So, is this a misleading survey? Is the positive ballyhoo false?

Federspiel says the general results are positive. He speculates that if Brown had started with an amount higher than $20, respondents would have said “yes” to a higher amount.

A majority of commissioners, both for and against the tax proposal, say they question how much the survey means.

“The question about the money was meaningless to me,” says Ann Doyle, a Republican who supports putting a proposal on the ballot for constituents to decide.

“The choices started at $20 and went up from there.   Had the survey started with a lower number, than the lower number would have had the majority responding to it. Likewise, if it started with a higher number, people would still have picked the lowest number on the list of choices.  It's human nature to pick the lowest number.”

Doyle says the survey would have more meaning if she knew how many respondents own farms, how many own businesses other than farms, how many are homeowners vs. renters, and other demographic information.

For his part, Brown did not return repeated phone calls from The Review regarding his survey methods.

Anti-Tax Communities Rely Most on Road Patrols

In terms of geographic demographics, an ironic factor comes into play. Rural anti-tax communities have the most reliance on the Sheriff’s Department.

City of Saginaw residents have approved an extra 7.5 mills, in addition to their regular taxes, to maintain their local public safety operations. Carrollton Township citizens shell out 7.4 mills. Most residents of the inner suburbs pay some sort of millage.

Meanwhile, in Birch Run Township, voters on Nov. 2 rejected a mere 1 mill. Chesaning residents pay nothing.

And so the question arises: Why should a Saginaw city resident, for example, pay for another tax increase so that an anti-tax community such as Birch Run or Chesaning receives road patrols?

This is a tricky question for Sheriff Federspiel, who responds as best he can given the tax structure he inherited upon election in 2008.

“I have no reason to doubt, based on the survey results, that people would support a millage request,” Federspiel says.

He explains that while road patrols are the primary source of police protection in communities that refuse to pay taxes for their own departments, the Sheriff’s Department also offers services in places such as Saginaw and Carrollton. For example, he says deputies recently tracked down a shooting suspect in the city.

Furthermore, says Federspiel, when an urban resident travels to a rural area, their local police protection does not follow them outside of the boundary. His family lives in Saginaw, and he served on the City Council prior to his election as sheriff. He says his wife must travel out of town frequently. If she encountered a criminal incident in the rural outskirts, she would have to rely on Sheriff’s Department protection.

In addition, Federspiel points out that a millage also would keep the county jail open to maximum capacity, which served the interests of all county residents, urban and rural. Otherwise, criminals in any location would feel more aggressive, realizing that law enforcement could issue nothing more than an appearance ticket for crimes such as shoplifting and drug violations. This is the situation in Genesee County, he notes.

County Commissioners with city-based constituents, such as Moe Woods and Mike Hanley and Carl Ruth, support Federspiel’s explanations.

“We realize we have the Tea Party types in some of the outlying areas, who want services without paying taxes, but we have to do what’s best for the total community,” Woods says.

“This millage would support not only the Sheriff’s Department, but also the jail, and the prosecutor, and the judges. We are all in this together. I’m a person who is willing to pay taxes for the good of the community.”

Ruth says, “This is a countywide public safety issue as a whole. I’m not going to debate what people do in their individual communities.”

Cheryl Hadsall says she voted for her Birch Run 1 mill, and is disappointed that her neighbors did not do the same. Still, she will advocate a county law enforcement tax not only to her own constituents, but to people who live elsewhere.

“This isn’t just about road patrols, this is about countywide public safety,” Hadsall says. “This also encompassed the jail, but also the juvenile program out on Hospital Road. We have to look at this as a whole big circle, because our public safety is crucial to our economic development.”

Mike O’Hare, whose Chesaning neighbors have rejected paying for local public safety, makes a comparison to the Event Center tax.

“When the first Civic Center tax was passed (in 2001), a lot of people out here said why should we vote for it? But for the renewal in November, we had something like 63 percent,” O’Hare notes.

“We have more outcounty crime than ever, break-ins into houses and businesses, but it is mostly petty crimes and apparently in Chesaning Township people don’t think taxes (for local police) are necessary.”

Regarding a countywide law enforcement tax, with urban residents paying up to 7.5 mills while rural people pay less or nothing, O’Hare says, “We have to remember we’re all in this thing together. If we’re divided, we fall.”

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