Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Taxes? Mich. voters defy conventional wisdom

LANSING, Mich. -- Nobody ever can suggest raising taxes. Americans, and especially Michiganians, are overtaxed or at least are convinced they are. Suggesting higher taxes, even on the rich, no matter how urgent the need, amounts to political suicide.

That's not exactly scripture, but it is a firm article of faith in politics today, especially in the Michigan Legislature. Democrats have been squalling loudly about the budget cuts Gov. Rick Snyder's majority GOP allies are pushing through the Legislature.

Yet even they aren't standing up and saying that the state should boost the income tax rate instead. Or raise the sales tax, or tax services. The Democrats are, largely, afraid to do so.

This week, however, one major group of citizens proved the conventional wisdom wrong. They rose up and came out in support of higher taxes -- on themselves. Additionally, they are the one group politicians cannot easily afford to ignore.

They are the voters.

Faced with potential loss of services, faced with devastating budget cuts, voters in cities and school districts across the state said yes to higher taxes. Not in every case, but in a lot of them.

They weren't led by "liberal" elected politicians. Those officials were hiding. They were led instead by people such as Euni Rose, an elderly widow who has lived in Southfield for 39 years.

"Someone told me it's not sexy to be responsible about money. It's sexy to cut. We don't need sexy. We need to be safe and alive," she told her city council.

Southfield was a city of magnificent office towers and leafy, tree-lined suburbs. It was filled with split-level and ranch homes when she and her late husband, a cantor at a nearby synagogue, arrived.

Many of its 70,000-odd residents were young Jewish couples like the Roses. Today, the attractive and well-kept city has an African-American majority.

Yet this year, Southfield, like many other Michigan cities, was suddenly threatened with financial disaster. The state's economic crisis meant that Southfield is getting more than $3 million less in revenue-sharing. Worse, the collapse of the housing market meant property tax collections are in free fall.

The city told voters they had a choice: Increase their tax burden by almost five mills. That would generate about $13 million. Four-fifths of it would be used for police and fire protection. The rest would go to the city's gleaming new library, and some park and street repairs.

Were the levy to fail, the city announced it would have to lay off half of all police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical responders.

For a city that borders Detroit, that could be the kiss of death.

Euni Rose, who chairs the library board, campaigned like mad. "Without our superb police, fire, and EMS departments, we would not be a community. In these awful times, the library and parks and recreation department have come to the rescue of our families and children," she told city council.

When the votes were counted Tuesday night, even supporters were stunned. Southfield residents voted to raise their taxes by a margin of five to one -- and they were not alone. Three other hard-hit, blue-collar Detroit suburbs -- Ferndale, Hazel Park, and Madison Heights -- voted to raise their taxes. Another, Clawson, voted new money for its library.

On the west side of the state, the picture was similar. In Ottawa, the most Republican county in the state, Hudsonville voters opted to spent $82 million to upgrade their schools. Other millages were renewed all over the state.

That's not to say there weren't exceptions, or that the voters were in a free-spending mood. In Garden City, a small, blue-collar town best known as the home of iconic rocker Mitch Ryder, the city asked for 12 mills of new money. Too much, the voters said.

Voters in Jackson and Harper Woods also turned down proposals to consolidate police and fire services, something cash-strapped officials in a lot of places are considering.

And the big exception was in Lansing, where Mayor Virg Bernero, the Democratic nominee for governor last year, had pleaded with his constituents to approve a sizable override of the Headlee Amendment that limits property tax collections.

The vote was close, but the answer was no. The police and fire departments will lose more than 70 positions each -- a quarter of their strength. "I was hoping it would be a referendum on the city and quality of life," Mr. Bernero said.

Instead, he told a reporter it had become a referendum on the economy in a time of scarcity: "People are scared." An analysis indicated absentee voters may have provided the margin of defeat.

Nevertheless, in many places, Michigan voters seem to have demonstrated that they are willing to pay more taxes -- if the money is for services they, and their communities, want and need.

Whether this will have any impact on their elected representatives remains to be seen.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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