County Board Rejects Road Tax for Now

Washtenaw County commissioners voted down a proposal to levy a 0.4-mill countywide road tax in December, but agreed to continue discussing funding options for road repair. The vote on levying a millage was 2-6, with support only from Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Conan Smith (D-District 9). The action took place at its May 21, 2014 meeting. Alicia Ping (R-District 3) was absent.

The tax would have been levied under Act 283 of 1909, which does not require voter approval.

After the tax levy resolution was rejected, Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) brought forward a resolution to create a seven-member road funding committee that would explore options – including Act 283, as well as other possible revenue sources like bonding or a voter-approved tax. The initial vote to form the committee passed on a 6-2 split, over dissent from Conan Smith and Dan Smith. A final vote will be taken on June 4. If approved, members would be appointed at a later date, with the direction to provide a road funding plan to the board in the fall.

Prompted in part by what many view as a chronic underfunding of roads in Michigan – combined with a particularly harsh winter – county commissioners have been discussing for months how to generate more revenues to repair the county’s road network.

At the board’s May 7, 2014 meeting, Dan Smith (R-District 2) brought forward a resolution that would have authorized levying a 1 mill tax – under Act 283 – in December 2014. A 1-mill tax would generate $14.34 million “to repair 2013–14 winter damage to the roads, streets and paths in Washtenaw County.” On May 7, the board debated the issue at length but ultimately voted to postpone the resolution until May 21 over dissent from Ping.

On May 21, Dan Smith brought forward a revised resolution that addressed some concerns raised by corporation counsel Curtis Hedger during the May 7 meeting. The new resolution proposed an 0.4-mill levy and included a list of specific projects that the tax revenues would fund. [.pdf of May 21 resolution]

The resolved clauses stated:

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that pursuant to the authorization of Public Act 283 of 1909 (MCLA 224.20), the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners approves a millage of 0.4 mills to be levied against all real property in the County, which will generate approximately $5,—,— to be collected in December, 2014, for use in calendar years 2014 and 2015 to keep existing Washtenaw County public roads, streets, paths, bridges and culverts in reasonable repair, and in condition reasonably safe and fit for public travel; and that this levy be exempt from capture by TIF Districts or TIFAs to the greatest extent allowed by law.

FURTHERMORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners agrees with Washtenaw County Road Commission’s initial determination, as attached hereto and made a part hereof, and levies said millage for the purposes therein.

FURTHERMORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Road Commissioners is invited to present a revised determination in accordance with Act 283 of 1909 to the Board of Commissioners at its annual meeting on September 17, 2014 for an additional levy not to exceed 0.6 mills.

FURTHERMORE, BE IT RESOLVED that Washtenaw County Corporation Counsel is directed to provide an exhaustive formal written opinion, by September 17, 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.

Several commissioners spoke against levying this kind of tax at this time. Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) advocated for waiting to see whether the state provides more funding for roads. Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) reported that the boards of Willow Run and Ypsilanti public schools are considering levying tax increases this summer of 2.8 mills and 1.2 mills, respectively. The state passed legislation that enables school districts to levy millages for debt retirement without voter approval. Peterson said the communities that he represents – Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Superior Township – would be hard-pressed to handle yet another tax increase.

Dan Smith argued that there are few funding options available to the county to pay for road repair, and that the need for additional revenues is critical because the roads are in such bad shape. He noted that he was well aware of the reasons why this was a bad plan – even a terrible one – but said the only thing worse would be to do nothing. Conan Smith pointed out that because all of the board seats are up for election this year, residents will have a way to weigh in on this decision, albeit indirectly. ”This is the most defensible moment that we have” to levy a tax that doesn’t require voter approval, he said.

The May 21 meeting also included a public hearing on the possible levy, and the board heard from people during public commentary. In total, seven people spoke about the road funding issue. Former county commissioner Barbara Bergman, who is an Ann Arbor resident, argued against levying the tax, while former state Rep. Rick Olson of York Township urged commissioners to levy the full 1-mill amount allowed under Act 283. Another resident argued against any tax that isn’t approved by voters, calling it taxation without representation.

For additional Chronicle coverage on road-related issues, see: “County Board Continues Weighing Road Tax,” “County Board Debates Expanded Road Commission,” “County Board Sets Hearing on Road Tax,” “County Considers Road Funding Options,” “No Major Change Likely for Road Commission” and “Group Explores Road Commission’s Future.”

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