Royal Oak Township is a proud community, but its leaders cannot keep its books balanced. The township should be annexed into better-off cities. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Royal Oak Township has suffered significant population loss during past years, and growing deficits and ignored bills have pushed the community to financial disaster.
The township should be dissolved and absorbed by neighboring local governments, such as the adjacent cities of Ferndale and Oak Park. That may not be the initial suggestion of the Michigan Department of Treasury, which is conducting a review of the township’s finances. The study is the first step in determining if an emergency manager should be appointed.
But in looking at the financial condition of the township and the related demographic circumstances, it’s obvious a state-appointed manager would be only a stopgap measure.
The township’s board of trustees knows the municipality is in dire straits. A letter from the Treasury Department to the township spells out the recorded deficits over the past five years, including $301,544 in 2011 and $496,410 in 2013. Treasury officials also have charged the township has routinely taken money from special assessments designated for police and fire services and used the funds to meet its $1.2 million budget.
Last month, the Treasury Department reported the township failed to keep up with its minimum pension payments, hasn’t filed timely audits or complied with a deficit elimination plan. Also, the township borrowed $300,000 without treasury approval. In addition, the township faces a police and fire protection crisis. Ferndale notified officials that it would end its fire protection this month when its contract expires because the township said it was running out of money.
Back in August, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard gave the township a 90-day notice saying it would terminate police services on Nov. 11 because the Sheriff’s Office, at the time, was owed $182,497. That figure was expected to grow. Bouchard says he doesn’t expect the township to be able to pay the amount owed, and his budget can’t absorb the extra cost.
The township can’t even face its dilemma with unified leadership. The township board has filed a lawsuit against Clerk Janice Brinkley, claiming she hasn’t fulfilled her duties. The suit claims that her failure to file needed paperwork has cost the township thousands of dollars.
But playing the blame game won’t solve the township’s problems. Royal Oak Township was established in 1833 as a traditional 36-square-mile governing unit, but over time it has shrunk to a mere one-half square mile. Its population has plummeted more than 70 percent since 1960, dropping from 8,147 to 2,419. The median income for a household in the township is only $23,710, and 23.5 percent of the population has income below the poverty level.
Merging the township with its neighbors seems the best option. Oak Park City Manager Erik Tungate declined to comment on Royal Oak Township’s current circumstances, but did say property annexed a number of years ago from the township was successfully merged. “There were issues along the way, but over the past 10 years the annexation has been successful because Oak Park is a well-run community,” Tungate says.
The facts speak for themselves. Royal Oak Township cannot continue to operate as an independent municipality. The state should to take over its financial operation and then prudently dissolve the township.