Woronchak: Wayne should use cash to pay its judgment

Gary Woronchak

When a court judgment against a municipality awards money, there are two choices: Pay whomever filed suit directly, or pass it to taxpayers in a special property tax. It’s called a “judgment levy” and is required by law if the municipality doesn’t pay the bill with existing funds.

The city of Inkster recently agreed to pay $1.38 million to a man who had been beaten by a police officer. Inkster doesn’t have the money, so the judgment will be put on Inkster’s summer tax bills, costing the owner of a home worth $100,000 about $180.

Every taxpayer in Wayne County may face a similarly unexpected and imposed property tax under the same mechanism, the judgment levy.

The discussion has bogged down over details of the lawsuit. Whether it’s a judgment for payment on a catastrophic accident involving a county vehicle or, as in this case, over a required payment not made to the county pension system, the point is, there is a $49 million judgment against the county. At issue is whether the county will pay from available funds, or let the bill be paid directly by taxpayers.

Wayne County’s dismal fiscal condition is well known. However, there is $78 million in a fund that has not yet been allocated, though it had been expected that it would go toward reducing the county’s accumulated budget deficit.

That’s where a majority of the Wayne County Commission disagreed with County Executive Warren Evans. Evans believes that $78 million should be allocated to paying down the county’s deficit. A majority of commissioners voted to move $49 million of that money anyway, believing that money could go to avoiding the judgment levy. Evans has vetoed that action.

We are also concerned about the county’s finances. But the basic right-wrong of this is whether taxpayers should be forced to pay on this summer’s tax bills when there is another way, even if it would keep the county in a financial hole a while longer.

I’m surprised at how some think this is just something the taxpayers should eat. It was suggested this is the price they pay for poor performance of the people they elect. First, how does that twisted logic apply to those who voted over the years against the previous administration? And are we blaming the housing market crash that had a hand in this case on elected officials?

Wayne County Commissioners are elected to directly represent the taxpayers of their district. For me, that means protecting the taxpayers, and their wallets, if there’s another way to pay the bill.

Letting this money be taken, without permission, from residents’ pockets this summer would not be keeping faith with, or showing respect to, our taxpayers. If we want taxpayers to assist in Wayne County’s financial recovery, to share in the sacrifice, we should ask them. We should convince them that it’s necessary. It should not be imposed on them.

Proponents of the tax levy refer to the long-term consequences of using existing money, saying taxpayers will pay more later if they don’t pay now. I suggest that message be put in each tax bill mailed this summer. Shall we guess how much better that will make the owner of a $100,000 house feel when they pay an extra $50?

Less facetiously, an imposed tax this summer will make it all the more difficult to convince taxpayers down the line to renew the voter-approved taxes that are expiring, or to authorize new ones to be true and willing partners in Wayne County’s recovery.

I understand and respect the county executive’s position on this. None of this is easy. Evans not taking lightly the imposition of a judgment levy on taxpayers. Nor are commissioners taking lightly the long-term effects on county finances.

However this matter ends up, I remain concerned that the judgment levy could be viewed as a tool for extracting money from taxpayers. If it goes forward now, it could be less difficult to swallow the next time. And the taxpayers who used to believe they had a say in their property tax rates will realize that, under certain circumstances, they do not.

Gary Woronchak, D-Dearborn, is chairman of the County Commission and represents the 13th District.