Bloomfield Township millage renewal sparks dispute about spending

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Bloomfield Township — Residents who felt they beat back “runaway spending” last August by defeating a tax proposal face another money request on next month's ballot.

Bloomfield Township officials seek a 10-year renewal of a 1.2401-mill levy that funds police and fire services. But critics say since the millage expired in December, the proposal is a new tax.

The millage, which would raise $5.1 million in the first year, has ignited a fierce debate over the township's finances and the leadership of Supervisor Leo Savoie and the Board of Trustees.

From left, Bloomfield Township Trustee Neal Barnett, Trustee David Buckley, Clerk Janet Roncelli, Supervisor Leo Savoie, Township Attorney Mark Roberts, Treasurer Brian Kepes, Trustee Michael Schostak, and Trustee Dani Walsh participate in their Board of Trustees meeting Monday, Feb. 10, 2020 at Bloomfield Township Hall in Bloomfield Township, Mich.

At a board meeting this month, residents suggested several officials and department heads sell their township-provided cars, renegotiate employee contracts and have employees pay more toward their health insurance than the current average of $16 a month for family coverage. 

Eric Winkleman told the board residents are upset with the township for ending hazardous waste and paper-shredding services after the defeat last summer of a 15-year, 2.3-mill special assessment. 

Bloomfield Township Trustee David Buckley addresses fellow trustees during a recent Board of Trustees meeting.

“We’re watching you; it's an election year,” Winkleman said. “C’mon, guys. Get it straight.”

Savoie bristles at the suggestion that township leaders haven't been watching costs. When voters nixed the millage, 16 positions were eliminated by retirement or attrition, in addition to the service cuts. 

“Within the current year, we have cut over $4 million in expenses," Savoie said, adding that the money saved went toward retiree benefits.

“Our budget is balanced and our upcoming budget will be balanced as well,” he said, adding the township has been awarded an AAA rating from Standard & Poor's.

During an announcement of promotions and awards for township firefighters, Fire Chief Mike Morin warned of consequences if the millage does not pass, including layoffs, and end to EMS and fire station shutdowns. He said some of his personnel are already looking for jobs elsewhere, fearful of their future.

At one point he looked out at the audience and said: “Go ahead and not pass the millage and see what happens …”

Dan Devine, a former township treasurer who attended the meeting, accused Morin of exaggerating the impact of a no vote on the tax.

“I was disappointed that the chief — like others — took the time to discuss this as a dedicated millage for public safety," he said. "It’s not. It can be used for fire and police. But it can be used for any township operating expenses.

“And as for predicting it would be ‘goodbye to 20 firefighters,' no more EMS. Just ambulances and two of four fire halls shut down — that’s nothing but scare tactics,” Devine said.

The tax question appears on the back of the Democratic presidential primary ballot in the well-heeled township of about 42,000 residents, home to both Oakland Hills Country Club and the Detroit Skating Club.

Greg Yatooma, whose 18-month-old child was cared for by fire department workers following an auto accident, expressed admiration for firefighters. “I’m a ‘yes’ for anything forever to make their jobs better,” he said.

Don Valente, a 25-year township resident who publishes an online newsletter calling for spending reductions, said the majority of Republican and independent voters in the township will stay home on March 10, since there is no GOP primary for president.

Those who do vote may not bother to flip the ballot over to read the millage, along with a renewal millage for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

David Roznowski, who has lived in the township for five years, said if the millage passes, his property taxes will increase $2,395, for a total of $11,017 a year.

“My taxes were $8,622 in 2019,” said Roznowski. “That’s a 21% tax increase in one year.”

Savoie said township residents’ taxes go far and the millage renewal is not out of line. “The average selling price of a home here is $450,000 … a taxable value of $225,000, then 1.24 mills equals $279 per year,” he said.

“What people fail to realize is only 25% of the taxes paid stay in Bloomfield Township,” he said. “The rest goes to the schools, county, DIA, SMART, etc. For less than $180 per month, Bloomfield Township residents get police, fire roads, library, courthouse and all the other things we do.”

Depending on who is counting the beans, the township’s fiscal situation is solid or slipping.

Devine points to the township’s annual operating report, which indicates the township had $45.6 million in total revenues in 2018-19 and a surplus of $62,167, and projected revenues in 2019-20 of $47.4 million and expenditures of $49.6 million — a  deficit of roughly $2.2 million.

But at the Feb. 10 meeting, Savoie said the township had eliminated the projected shortfall by eliminating jobs and making operational changes, and the board approved an amendment to balance the budget. Devine said that proves the March millage request is unnecessary. 

David Buckley, a township trustee since 2002, said the special assessment for $9 million sought last summer would have raised $2 million to immediately meet an annual retiree health care liability and $3.5 million to immediately meet a pension fund deficit. Going forward, it was unclear how funds would be earmarked.

Savoie said officials planned ahead to cover non-pension retiree costs, known as "other post-employment benefits."

“We purposely budgeted for the deficit this year not knowing how the election in August would come out,” he said. “We had put a hiring freeze in place 18 months prior knowing what the ramifications would be with change in the state law regarding OPEB contributions.”

In 2017 then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation into the law requiring municipalities to fund retiree heath care obligations in advance.

Savoie said that in 2018-19, the township "made a $500,000 contribution to OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits)" that resulted in "a very small deficit."

Savoie said officials found funds that permitted them to amend and balance the budget for the rest of the fiscal year. Devine believes that having a balanced budget shows "there is no need for the March 10 millage request."

MaryAlice LeDuc, head of a citizens group that has campaigned against township tax issues, said the township continues to take every opportunity to propose a “yes” vote on the millage, contrary to election rules.

“They put it up on their website. They send out mailers with tax money,” LeDuc said. “They hold meetings during working hours at senior centers called ‘coffee and social hour.’"

In recent months, township meetings and social media platforms have turned contentious at times with insults and name-calling from those on both sides of the issues.

At township meetings, Savoie and residents have exchanged heated remarks, including one in which Savoie said he understood how some residents felt about him, then added, “And I don’t like you.”

“I have to admit my relationship with him has soured,” Buckley said. “But he has got some character flaws and public has caught on with them. Some people feel he’s not cut out for the job.”

Buckley said he has no interest in “sticking it to employees” but argued Savoie is using workers “as a human shield” against criticism.

Employee contracts are up for renegotiation — something Buckley would like to put off until the township has a newly constituted board of trustees. All seven board members are up for reelection in November.

Township Treasurer Brian Kepes said Buckley, who has asked for paperwork on sales of all township vehicles, seemed to have a “fixation about vehicles.”

Bloomfield Township Treasurer Brian Kepes argues a point with trustee David Buckley (not pictured) during a recent Board of Trustees meeting at Bloomfield Township Hall in Bloomfield Township, Mich.

After Buckley said the discussion had become “painful,” township Clerk Janet Roncelli told him “you should be ashamed of yourself” for a social media posting and Savoie chimed in, “You are an embarrassment.” 

Bloomfield Township Clerk Janet Roncelli addresses trustees during a recent Board of Trustees meeting at Bloomfield Township Hall in Bloomfield Township, Mich.

Savoie, Roncelli and Kepes are the only elected officials who receive cars as part of their compensation. Savoie is paid more than $160,000 annually and Roncelli and Kepes are paid nearly $140,000 each. All other trustees receive pay of $200 a meeting for a total of $5,000 a year.

Trustee Dani Walsh had her own words with Savoie, disputing how many days a dead deer sat outside a resident’s property before disposal.

She said a rift between residents and township officials has “some afraid to talk at public meetings,” while others are ready to run for office.

“I have been approached by eight people who said they are planning on running for the board,” Walsh told her colleagues. The filing deadline is April 21.

Even the most vocal of critics of the current board believe the township is in generally good shape.

“I don’t think there are any fiscal problems that a forensic audit wouldn’t solve,” said Devine, who was appointed treasurer in 1999 and served until being defeated in a 2016 primary election.

Savoie said the township has an annual audit and discounted calls for more financial oversight.

“We are not in a financial crisis, regardless of what a few people think," he said.

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