Detroit neighborhood groups get leeway to charge fees

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city of Detroit is making it easier for neighborhood groups to assess extra fees for services such as security patrols and snow removal.

The controversial program, approved last year, allows neighborhoods to raise money from property owners to supplement services within a certain district, as long as 51 percent of owners approves.

But an existing city code — requiring 80 percent of residents within a district be current on their property taxes — proved unattainable and prevented groups from pursuing the effort.

New hope for the initiative came last month when the City Council voted to soften that code, lowering the requirement to 60 percent to match a threshold in place for business improvement zones. The amendment will go into effect Tuesday.

The shift has prompted some members of a citywide coalition at the forefront of the assessment plan to renew discussions with residents to gauge interest and evaluate priorities.

Supporters say it's another step for neighborhoods to gain autonomy, and ties into the administration's post-bankruptcy revival.

"There's a big emphasis in strengthening the neighborhoods right now," said Craig Vanderburg, president of the Palmer Woods Association and member of the coalition that supports the assessment legislation.

"This gives people at the neighborhood-level a chance to empower themselves and to direct their resources and efforts in a way where they can see some dividends."

But critics argue the extra fee is unnecessary, saying taxes are high enough in Detroit and the city should provide adequate services on its own.

Indian Village resident Daniel Klinkert said there's a difference in police presence and waste collection in the last year, but taxpaying Detroiters still aren't getting a good return.

"To levy more taxes I don't think is appropriate at this time," said Klinkert, noting he's "lucky" his annual property taxes are $3,000, while some neighbors are paying $12,000 to $15,000.

A number of neighborhood groups have long voluntarily contributed money for additional snow and security services. But the new ordinance, the first of its kind in Detroit's history, is different because it would require every neighbor to pay up, as long as a majority approves.

The petition-driven initiatives would ask landowners to add a fee on their property tax bill to pay private contractors for supplemental snow removal, mosquito abatement or security services. Neighbors within the district will be able to set a budget and outline services to be provided by the certified contractors of their choice. The assessment would augment, not replace, existing city services.

The City Council would have to approve each district and the Finance Department will serve as fiduciary for the money. The ordinance requires qualified neighborhood organizations to initiate the intensive process of engaging neighbors, interviewing contractors, setting budgets and coordinating with Detroit's Finance Department to prepare petitions.

Each petition must contain specifics about the circulating group as well as a description of district boundaries, services to be funded, preliminary estimates of the assessed cost of services from three contractors, the expected cost and the proposed term.

The taxpayer of record for at least 51 percent of the land comprising the district must sign on for the City Council to consider it. Government-owned properties are exempt.

The assessment would be for a minimum of seven years and property owners could face foreclosure proceedings if they fail to pay.

Implementation would rely heavily on the city to craft the petition language. It's being reviewed by the Detroit Department of Elections and expected to be finalized by May, officials said.

The nonprofit Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp. in northwest Detroit acted as the catalyst for the effort, spearheading the citywide coalition and a campaign to gain support for the creation of a special assessment district in five northwest Detroit communities.

On Thursday, more than 80 residents attended the first in a series of meetings to revive discussions and "test the waters" to see if the associations, block captains, community leaders and residents remain supportive.

Attendees saw several options for snow removal and security services that ranged in cost from $180 to $250 per year.

"We keep trying to move this process forward because it was a focus for us," said Karen Johnson Moore, GRDC's community security program manager.

The northwest communities hope to gain consensus and circulate petitions by fall and seek approval from the council in early 2016.

Since the assessment would be tacked on to summer tax bills, the earliest Detroit neighborhoods could see them happen is next year.

The districts are provided for under a 2011 amendment to Michigan law that allows cities with a population of 600,000 or more to pursue the assessment districts.

City Councilman James Tate said the ordinance, approved unanimously by the council, has been a top priority. A number of neighborhoods rallied for the option to "self-determine" their future, he said.

"We are still in a very challenging situation financially," Tate said. "Even though bankruptcy certainly helped restructure our debt, we still will not be able to succeed as a community unless we have all hands on deck."

Johnson Moore expects some will be reluctant to sign on, but for her own community remains hopeful.

"I do have a sense that there are some neighborhoods that are more excited about the possibility and some people who say they don't want any more property taxes," said Johnson Moore, a 34-year resident of North Rosedale Park.

"But some are willing to do more to preserve the quality of life in the neighborhood."

The nonprofit Michigan Community Resources supports community-based organizations in Michigan and worked with other Detroit groups to bring the ordinance to fruition.

It's now crafting a legal guide for city neighborhoods, says CEO Jill Ferrari.

Ferrari said engagement in Detroit is already difficult. Getting absentee landlords to the table could prove challenging.

"We have so many vacant property owners and landlords that aren't interested in discussing things like this," she said.