NEW BUFFALO — Without further discussion following a lengthy public hearing, the New Buffalo Township board unanimously approved a Public Safety Special Assessment District (SAD) for public safety during its Feb. 16 regular meeting.
The action followed 2 and 1/2 hours of comments, mostly from taxpayers opposed to the assessment with several calls for legal action. Much of the night’s hearing was a repeat of a Jan. 19 public hearing.
The SAD, which lasts for 20 years, enables the township board to levy an assessment to be used for public safety, including police, fire and ambulance service. The current assessment will be 2.1 mills but can be changed yearly by board vote. This assessment will replace two public safety millages which totaled 1.77 mills and were subject to voter approval every five years.
The assessment will appear on December 2021 tax bills, payable in February 2022. A home with a $100,000 taxable value will see an annual increase of about $30. Property owners who protested the assessment at the hearing or with a letter prior to the hearing can file a written appeal with the Michigan Tax Tribunal within 30 days.
In addition to funding the current level of police, fire and ambulance services, the special assessment ensures the township will have the funds to pay the 20-year bond (totaling $5 million) taken out for the new public safety building that will house fire and police. Previously, payment of this long term investment and other public safety costs were subject to voter approval every five years. If a millage failed, public safety services faced cutbacks.
Township Supervisor Michelle Heit opened the hearing by addressing questions that had been raised including: the assessment is not subject to Headlee Rollback and will remain at the amount levied by the board; the increase amount to taxpayers is due to a loss of payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) funding from the Four Winds Casino caused by the switch from millage to special assessment; public notices were mailed to all property owners weeks prior to the public hearings; the August millage was for operational budget, not public safety, and questions about tax deductions should be referred to tax advisors.
During the Feb. 16 hearing, many objections came from residents of the Villages of Grand Beach and Michiana who pay village taxes for their own police and, in Michiana, also for fire service. Others complained about lack of notification or information about what the assessment would pay for. Several mentioned the potential for further litigation and its cost.
Township Attorney Michael Homier gave his legal opinion that the assessment included Grand Beach and Michiana property owners since they are within the township as well as the village and subject to township taxation. He said the township had followed proper procedures in filing and notification. Homier added that the township is not suggesting that the villages cannot continue to assess for their own services.
Sara Senica, legal counsel for the Villages of Grand Beach and Michiana, objected for the villages on the basis that they are incorporated home rule villages authorized to have and assess for their own police and emergency services. Under home rule, Senica said the villages are sovereign , meaning the township does not have any authority within the villages and has no right to levy any assessments.
Senica also raised the issue of proportionality of assessing all at the same rate when village residents are not receiving the same services. Later in the hearing, Sheriff Paul Bailey said the township police do answer calls within the villages and work very closely with the villages’ officers. Township Clerk Judy Zabicki said New Buffalo Township is the primary fire service for the villages and answered 24 calls in Michiana during 2020.
“It is absolutely necessary to take a look at proportionality before moving forward today. We are all neighbors and need to work together in the future. There is a right way and wrong way to move forward tonight. I think the wrong way would be to approve this motion the way it is right now. Additional consideration is needed before this is approved,” Senica said.
“They (village residents) vote in the township and pay taxes in the township,” Heit said, adding that they already are paying the two public safety millages, the same as other township residents.
Grand Beach Village President Debbie Lindley pointed out that the last millage passed by a very small number of voters. She also questioned the fairness of being asked to pay for services she already pays for and which do not add to the value of her home. Lindley asked that more research to be done to avoid litigation over the question of home rule and the right to levy special assessments.
“I don’t feel we are being treated fairly or legally,” she said.
Dr. Michael Mintz, Michiana village president, said he wanted to protest the special assessment and supported the views of Senica and President Lindley of Grand Beach.
“I wonder what the Township of New Buffalo is thinking. What do you suggest Michiana do relative to a police force and fire department? Do you think we should be paying for both New Buffalo contracts? I think not,“ Mintz said.
“If you are telling us we have to take New Buffalo police and fire, then we would be paying double. It’s basically taking our home rule away from us and telling us what to do versus us making our own decisions. And there is no proportionality here. If it’s not proportional we will fight it in the courts,” Mintz said.
Grand Beach resident Ed Trainor said he was disappointed that he had found nothing in public record from the past year about the special assessment, criticized the “faulty notices” and said there is a need more transparency when there is a potential conflict of interest.
Rose Dudiak, former New Buffalo township supervisor, repeated her previous objection to the assessment because there was no input from residents and no mention of a special assessment in previous board meetings.
“The amount of money is not the issue. The way it was done is my issue,“ Dudiak said.
Carl Landwehr raised the question of equitability, with people being taxed for services they already are paying for.
County Commissioner Ezra Scott, speaking as a township resident and taxpayer – not as an elected official, said he was concerned about legal issues with the villages. He suggested pausing the action and letting the attorneys work it out.
“If the villages were to win and all that taxable value of a lot of very expensive properties was opted out, then you would have to raise your assessment on all of us that are not residents of the villages,” Scott said, adding that he thinks the assessment should be put to a vote by all residents of the township.
Heit responded saying the decision on the expenses to be covered by the special assessment was based on the two public safety millages that were approved by the voters.
John Walles, an Illinois resident and Grand Beach property owner, said he was a significant taxpayer but not part of the electorate. He thinks the process should be changed so people like him can have more input. Walles also asked if funds from the sale of the old fire house will be used to offset the assessment.
Mike Lindley said he had several concerns. He said by going to a board-approved assessment versus voter-approved millage, the township was giving up $1 million of PILT funds over six years.
“Taking it away from voters is a mistake. Giving up $149,000 a year and shifting it onto taxpayers makes no sense. Why would you do that? There are other options. I ask that you give pause,” Lindley said, offering his experience with writing millages.
Sandra Strome, a retired 20-year resident of Grand Beach, said she was against the proposed increase, noting that she had not received enough information as to why it was happening.
“What do we get for the 43 percent more that we pay,” asked Joe Galetto, a non-resident Warwick Shores property owner.
Heit agreed that second homeowners pay a lot to the schools “but look at your tax bills. Not as much goes to the township as you might think.”
After all wishing to speak had been heard, the public hearing was ended and the board returned to the agenda for its regular meeting.
Under public comment, Trainor repeated his comment that the special assessment had not appeared on previous agendas said it didn’t look good, it was inappropriate to keep the issue from the public and urged the board to “do the right thing and put a pause on it.”
Scott “strongly suggested” the board delay action based on what they heard during the hearing and have the attorneys work it out.
“We’re all neighbors and we don’t want to pit people against each other. We all need to stick together for whatever the best is,” Scott said.
Heit then moved to the first item under new business which was approval of the Public Safety Special Assessment District Resolution No. 4 which passed unanimously with no discussion.
In another Feb. 16 matter, the Township Board approved writing grants to The Pokagon Fund for $75,000 for the Union Pier trail head project and for $8,600 for a tractor, with two-thirds of the remaining cost of the tractor to be split between the Park and the Water and Sewer Departments. A bill for $9,750 was approved for the appraisal needed to get a right-of-way from Amtrak for the Marquette Greenway project.
The board also approved the third payment for the public safety building and passed routine resolutions to set an alternate date for the March Board of Review and to allow extension of the poverty exemption through the 2023 tax year.
During his monthly report, Lt. Ryan Sullivan of the Sheriff’s Department said patrols had increased in residential areas to increase police visibility during the absence of many “snowbird” residents. Fire Chief Jamie Flick said he expected the new fire truck to be delivered within the next few weeks.
In other business, the board:
Approved a bond payment of $8,000 for Kruger/Glassman Roads;
Agreed to a payment to Rosenbauer for $396,500 for new fire truck, payable upon delivery;
OK’d two days of off-site training for two firefighters for $300 each, plus hotel costs;
Approved a 3 percent rate increase for sewer ready-to-serve and sewer usage charges due to an increase from the Galien River Sanitary District;
Supported a $36,000 estimate from Dwan Service for floor coating and the $4,500 proposal from Adams Remco for a copy machine at the new Public Safety Building;
Approved payment to Landscape Forms for $21,300 for outside furniture for the Union Pier project.