Lincoln Park, Wayne seek pension shift for safety staff

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Voters in two Wayne County communities will be asked next month to support the creation of a new police and firefighter retirement system.

And officials in four Wayne County school districts are seeking approval of bond proposals on May 5.

Both the cities of Lincoln Park and Wayne are presenting ballot proposals to create a new retirement system for police officers and firefighters.

If approved, the cities will start new pension systems funded by an annual millage. One proposal amends the cities' charters and the other authorizes the millage.

Brad Coulter, Lincoln Park's emergency manager, said the measure will free up money in the city's general fund, which is being used to pay or the pensions of the community's public safety workers.

He said those dollars could be used to get police and firefighters equipment they need to do their jobs and pave the city's roads instead of going into the pension system, which is vastly underfunded.

"The vote on these proposals is critical," he said. "It really comes down to making sure we have adequate police and fire protection services."

Lincoln Park, a community of about 37,000 residents, has been run by a state-appointed emergency manager since April 2014.

Coulter said even though the city has "cut its services to the bone," its pension systems will run out of money in the next 10 years without changes.

Coulter said he plans to levy a millage of 6 mills in the first year of the new pension system to generate about $3 million.

City officials will determine the millage rate each year when they set the budget. They also could decide not to assess the property tax when the pension system is healthy again.

He estimates the new tax would cost the owner of a $60,000 home an additional $180 per year.

Nearly 50 communities across Michigan, including Dearborn Heights, Southfield and Sterling Heights, have similar millages to pay for police and firefighter pensions, Coulter said. Two of Lincoln Park's neighbors, Southgate and Taylor, also are funding pensions the same way.

"No matter what, the city's taxpayers are on the hook for these pensions, which are protected by the state's constitution," Coulter said. "If we don't fund them and we default, they'll go on the tax base as a judgment."

In Wayne, officials plan to levy up to three mills a year for five years. It's estimated the tax will generate $1 million in its first year.

Wayne has a population of about 19,000 people and an annual budget of about $16 million.

The new tax will cost the owner of a $59,000 home in Wayne about $177 extra per year.

Meanwhile, school bond proposals will be decided in four Wayne County school districts.

The largest is in Riverview Community School District, where officials have put a nearly $25 million bond proposal in two parts on the ballot.

The first part is a 2.8-mill increase to pay to improve student safety, upgrade technology infrastructure and renovate schools, which would raise $19.9 million. The other, a 0.9-mill increase, would be raise $4.7 million to expand the swimming pool at Seitz Middle School and replace the swimming pool at Riverview High School with a Community Health & Fitness Area.

Voters rejected the proposals in the November 2014 election.

Officials estimate the millage increases would cost the owner of a $150,000 home in the district an additional $277 a year.

Grosse Ile Township Schools is asking voters to approve two ballot questions — a $7.4 million, 10-year bond proposal to pay for large infrastructure projects as well as technology and bus purchases and a $2 million, five-year sinking fund replacement. District officials estimate the bond would levy 0.25 mills, while the sinking fund levy amount would be 0.75 mills.

If approved, officials estimate the proposal will not raise homeowners' tax levels since the 1 mill currently levied for the sinking fund will be used to pay for both the bond and the new sinking fund. It currently costs the homeowner of a $250,000 home $125 a month.

"We have some very expensive infrastructure costs here," said William Eis, the district's superintendent. "If we were to take money out of the general fund to pay for them, it would be catastrophic."

Eis said the district, which has nearly 1,900 students, has four school buildings that are 50 years old. Some of the district's buildings need new boilers, roofs, windows, student lockers and playground equipment, he said.

He also said the school needs technology upgrades to better prepare its students for the future.

"If you think about how important technology is in the world of 2015, imagine how important it's going to be in the future for our young people," he said. "Technology is no longer a want, it's a need and schools have to have it if we hope to have our kids be competitive in the 21st century."

Finally, Northville Public Schools and Van Buren Public Schools also have proposals on the ballot.

Northville's school district is seeking approval to renew a building site and sinking fund millage originally approved in 2011.

Officials said they plan to use the revenue generated by the five-year renewal to enhance building safety and security, improve classroom learning, improving energy efficiency, reduce costs and keep buildings operational.

Since it's a renewal of a 0.9978-mill request, it won't result in a tax increase for homeowners. The levy would generate nearly $2.6 million in 2016.

Van Buren Public Schools also is asking voters to renew the district's sinking fund, originally approved in 2008, for seven years. The renewal would allow the district to levy up to 1.13 mills, generating about $1.7 million nex year for building repairs and upkeep.

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