at a Crossroads... Again

    icon Jun 15, 2010
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In just a few weeks, if you live in the City of Saginaw, you’ll be asked to make a decision.

You’ll get to decide if your property values will eventually recover from the real estate bust, or if they’ll continue to stagnate, even decline, for years to come.

You’ll get to decide if your home, auto and business insurance rates skyrocket, or stabilize.

You’ll get to decide if the seedlings of economic development Saginaw has nurtured over the past five to 10 years will bear fruit, or wither away.

You’ll get to decide how quickly firefighters will be on the scene of a fire.

You’ll get to decide, very literally, if some people will live or die.

You get to make this decision on August 3, when you vote upon Saginaw Public Safety Proposals 1 and 2.




Like many cities in Michigan, Saginaw has been hit hard over the last 20-some years by declines in two important revenue sources. Federal revenue sharing was discontinued in 1987. State revenue sharing has been shrinking since about that time, as well.

Unlike other Michigan cities, Saginaw cannot make up that revenue by increasing its general fund property tax collections. While other cities have bumped into the state’s 20-mill ceiling, Saginaw’s property tax revenue is capped at $3.8 million or 7.5 mills – whichever is less.

So Saginaw was forced to make cuts. Which made sense, to a point, as the population declined. But as we went from a city of 98,000 to 56,000, a 43-percent decline, City staff went from nearly 1,200 employees to just under 450 – 62 percent.

Among the cuts? Our police department went from more than 230 officers to where we were when I joined City Council in 2005: 94.

Needless to say, that delighted our criminals. It only took a few years for us to become the city with the highest violent crime rate in the country. 

In the first half of 2006, Saginaw had 52 shootings and 10 homicides. And we faced a major turning point.



May, 2006

Even maintaining a 94-officer police force and a complement of 85 firefighters consumed about two-thirds of the general fund budget. As revenue continued to decline, Saginaw was forced to make a choice to balance the budget for the following year: eliminate one third of our police and firefighters, or come up with a new revenue stream.

Voters were asked to approve a 6-mill levy exclusively to maintain police force and fire department at current staffing levels; they overwhelmingly approved it.

It was a five-year millage. The deal was: give us five years to come up with a new tax structure. Last November, the voters turned down that new structure – which  involved lifting the revenue cap.

So in some ways, we’re in a similar position to where we were five years ago. Without a dedicated public safety millage, we will be forced to lay off one-third of our firefighters and one-third of our police officers. Period.

But there are a few big differences between today and five years ago.

First, the obvious: In 2011, 6 mills won’t buy what it bought in 2005. To maintain the same level of staffing we have today, we’ll need to increase the levy by 1-1/2 mills. Without that extra 1-1/2 mills, we’ll need to eliminate a total of about 20 police and fire positions.

So what you’ll see on the August ballot is two separate proposals: Proposal 1, a renewal of the 6-mill levy. And Proposal 2, an increase in that levy of 1.5 percent.



Let’s See How Far We’ve Come

Second, the incredible progress we’ve made since the millage was first levied. Remember I said that in the first half of 2006, we had 52 shootings and 10 homicides?  

In the first half of 2010, we had 23 shootings. And one homicide. From 2006, when the millage was first levied, through the end of 2009, Saginaw has:

  • reduced homicides by 52%

  • reduced criminal sexual conduct cases by 38%

  • reduced felonious assault cases by 31%

  • reduced auto theft by 51%

  • reduced arson by 68%

  • reduced fire calls by 12%

And those are just the things we can measure. They don’t include the increased efficiency and lower response times in the police and fire departments. The additional grants and special funds we’ve been able to tap for new technology, training, equipment and 10 additional police officers. The interdepartmental cooperation we’ve fostered, from SCENIC to the Violent Crime Task Force.

None of these things would have been possible without the public safety millage.



New Controversy

There’s a controversial element that has been injected into the question this year: the restructuring of City government and, specifically, the addition of a public safety director.

As we look five and 10 years down the road, our 150-year-old model of completely separate paramilitary organizations isn’t sustainable. The new position replaces two currently unfilled deputy chief posts, meaning it’s actually a net reduction in manpower.

But even if you disagree with the value of this one position, it would be wise to keep that disagreement out of the voting booth when you vote on the other 50 positions that will keep you safer. Don’t cut off 50 police and fire noses to spite one administrative face.



How Much Will it Cost?

Of course, the big question is: “How much will it cost me?”

The general answer is, for the next couple of years at least, probably a little bit less. City-wide, assessments have gone down by an average of four percent. Even with a 1.5-mill increase, your 2011 and 2012 tax bills will likely be lower than this year’s.

Saginaw’s median home value (2000 Census) was $43,000. If you own that home, your taxable value is $21,500. The 6-mill renewal will cost you $129 per year. The 1.5-mill increase will be $33 per year, for a total of $162 a year. That means you’re getting 20-some firefighters and 30-some police officers for 44 cents per day.

If your taxable value is $40,000, your cost per day is 82 cents.

If your taxable value is $50,000, your cost per day is $1.02.

This is a special millage. By state law, the money collected cannot be used for anything other than police and fire services. Five years ago, each City Council member pledged to uphold that principle – and not use the millage money to displace what has already been committed from the general fund.

All nine Council members make the same promise today.



It’s Up to You

The City continues to look for efficiencies: a restructuring of City staff that saves several million dollars, union wage and benefit concessions, changing shift structures. We continue to do everything we can to maintain the level of police and fire service the people of Saginaw want – and deserve.

But we can’t do it without the help of the voters.

We still have a long way to go. Twenty-three shootings are still too many. One homicide is still too many. Most of us have been, or know someone who has been, touched, in some way, by crime.

But it’s important for us to not lose sight of the progress we’ve made. That progress is the result of that public safety millage. If we lose that revenue, we will lose the ground we have gained.

We cannot afford to lose that ground. If you live in Saginaw … if you work in Saginaw … if you own property in Saginaw … you have a stake in this election. In your property values. In your insurance rates. In our ability to create jobs, provide healthcare, educate our children.

That’s why it’s critical that you vote “yes” on Proposals 1 and 2 on August 3.

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