County Board Sets Hearing on Road Tax

Following a lengthy discussion at their May 7, 2014 meeting, Washtenaw County commissioners voted to set a public hearing about a possible countywide road millage. The hearing will be held at their meeting in two weeks – on May 21 – so that the public can give input on a proposal to levy up to 1 mill for roads.

The tax would  be levied under Act 283 of 1909. The vote to set the public hearing was 5-3, over dissent from Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6), Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) and Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8). Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was out of the room when the vote was taken.

No final decision about whether to levy the millage is expected at the May 21 meeting, although an initial vote might be taken then.

Commissioners all appeared to support finding a way to secure more road funding, but some voiced concern about process and timing – especially since a levy under Act 283 would be done without voter approval.

Act 283 requires the road commission to submit a plan of recommended road repairs and the cost to undertake the projects. The law allows the county board to levy a millage to cover those costs, without voter approval. [.pdf of relevant section from Act 283, including summary by Lew Kidder of Scio Township.] Because the law is more than a century old and pre-dates the state’s Headlee amendment, there’s some uncertainty about the ability of county governments to use it.

Commissioners have previously held several discussions about the possibility of additional funding sources for road repair, most recently at a lengthy working session on April 17, 2014. In addition to a possible Act 283 levy, another option that’s been discussed is to put a countywide road millage on the Nov. 5, 2014 ballot for voter approval. A draft resolution circulated at the working session called for a four-year, 0.5 mill tax – from 2014-2017 – that would raise $7.15 million in its first year.

The May 7 discussion began when Dan Smith (R-District 2) brought forward a resolution that would authorize levying a 1 mill tax – under Act 283 – in December 2014. It would generate $14.34 million “to repair 2013–14 winter damage to the roads, streets and paths in Washtenaw County.” [.pdf of draft resolution] The board ultimately voted to postpone the resolution until May 21 over dissent from Alicia Ping.

Smith’s resolution would earmark 50% of the gross revenues to be used in the municipality in which the revenue was generated. Beyond that, 10% would be used for non-motorized transportation needs – like bike lanes and pedestrian paths – with the remainder to be allocated “based on use, need, and impact to the traveling public.”

The resolution also addresses concerns about the potential legal issues related to Act 283. From the draft resolution:

FURTHERMORE, BE IT RESOLVED that Washtenaw County Corporation Counsel is directed to provide an exhaustive formal written opinion, by September 30, 2014, which clearly and convincingly details the exact mechanism under which Act 283 of 1909 taxes may be levied in excess of Article IX, Section 6 constitutional limits without a vote of the people; and that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners waives any attorney/client privilege concerning this opinion.

FURTHERMORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners asks the county’s legislative delegation, State Senators Randy Richardville and Rebekah Warren and State Representatives Gretchen Driskell, Jeff Irwin, David Rutledge and Adam Zemke, to request an Attorney General opinion regarding the ability for counties to levy a tax under Act 283 of 1909 in excess of Article IX, Section 6 constitutional limits without a vote of the people.

During the wide-ranging discussion on May 7, Peterson expressed concern that the public hadn’t yet been informed about the Act 283 proposal. At the request of board chair Yousef Rabhi, Roy Townsend – managing director of the county road commission – had prepared a list of road projects that could be funded by an Act 283 millage, which was distributed at the May 7 meeting. Townsend and two of the three road commissioners – Barb Fuller and Bill McFarlane – attended the May 7 meeting, and Townsend fielded questions from the board. [.xls spreadsheet of proposed road projects based on 0.4 mill tax] [.xls spreadsheet of possible amounts raised by jurisdiction] [.pdf map showing location of proposed projects]

Corporation counsel Curtis Hedger cautioned that Act 283 lays out a specific process, which calls for a presentation of proposed road projects at a meeting in late September or October, prior to the December levy. Responding to those concerns, Dan Smith noted that options might include passing a resolution this month or in June to indicate the board’s intent to levy the tax, then possibly using money from the general fund’s fund balance to pay for road work this summer. The fund balance would be reimbursed when the tax revenues are collected in December.

The board discussion on this issue will continue at the May 21 meeting. Before then, a May 8 working session agenda includes the topic of possible expansion of the road commission board.

In other road-related items on the May 7 agenda, the board voted to accept the recommendations of a subcommittee that was appointed last year to explore options enabled by state legislators. The subcommittee had recommended not to make the road commission part of county operations, and not to make the job of road commissioner an elected position. The vote to accept the recommendations was 7-1, over dissent from Conan Smith (D-District 9). Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was not in the room when the vote was taken.

State legislation enacted in 2012 allowed for: (1) a county board of commissioners to exercise the powers and duties of a road commission; and (2) the functions of a road commission to be transferred to the county board. A sunset clause means that the laws expire on Jan. 1, 2015. That deadline prompted the county board to examine these options.

Related to that issue, Dan Smith drafted a letter to be sent to the state House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, urging passage of House Bills 5117 and 5118, which would remove the sunset clause from the legislation. [.pdf of letter]

From the letter:

Washtenaw County’s roads are a critical public asset; stewarding this infrastructure is the responsibility of an independent entity, with negligible input or funding from the elected Board of Commissioners. Eliminating the sunset would provide the board with more options for managing roads, including the possibility of additional locally-generated revenue. We urge passage of HB 5117 and HB 5118.

Yousef Rabhi and Alicia Ping asked that their names not be included as signatories. After consulting with Hedger during the meeting, Rabhi told commissioners that if anyone else wanted their names removed from the letter, they should let Smith know. It was not a voting item.

This brief was filed from the boardroom of the county administration building at 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. A more detailed report will follow: [link]