Wayne County taxes already too high

John Mozena

Voters in Wayne County will be asked in November to approve 3.2 mills of new property taxes for regional transit and public school systems. The millages will send money to the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) and the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Southeastern Michigan.

The appointed officials in charge of these organizations are asking taxpayers for more, even though Wayne County property owners already pay the highest effective tax rates in Michigan.

All told, Wayne County property owners paid $147 million in additional county-assessed millages last year, which was a staggering $100 million more than second-place Macomb County at $40 million and third-place Oakland County at $39 million. This disparity is even more telling given that Oakland County has $12 billion more in taxable property value than Wayne County. The Detroit Zoo, the county parks, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne County Community College, the Huron-Clinton Metropark Authority, the county jail, Wayne RESA and the county intermediate school district are among the recipients of millages collected by Wayne County.

All told, Wayne County and municipalities for which it collects taxes brought in more than $2 billion in property taxes in 2015. This is the burden to which the RTA and Wayne RESA proposals would add, raising a 55.11 mill average property tax rate to something in the vicinity of 58.3 mills and making Wayne County even less affordable when compared to the rest of the state.

Ingham County is the only other county in Michigan with an average rate above 50 mills, and just 16 of the state’s 83 counties tax more than 40 mills. For potential homebuyers or commercial property owners, it’s hard to make the argument that what we get in Wayne County is worth the additional cost.

And while countywide taxes are bad enough, it’s important to recognize how much harder they fall on residents of Detroit. The city’s 32.06 mills of property taxes mean that Detroiters pay an average total tax rate of 70.36 mills, not counting the 6.0-mill State Education Tax. According to a nationwide study published earlier this year by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence, Detroit has the highest homestead and commercial property taxes and second-highest industrial property taxes of the nation’s 50 largest cities.

Despite these crushing burdens, government officials continue to ask for more.

They blame revenue shortfalls rather than spending or other structural issues for the financial problems that have had the county in a consent agreement with the state for a year to stave off an emergency manager. In his March 2016 State of the County address, County Executive Warren Evans argued that “Wayne County received $418 million less in property tax receipts from 2008 to 2014” because of falling property values. He added, “Local governments can’t sustain that kind of loss without significantly affecting the quality of the essential services they are required to deliver.” Focusing on Proposal A and the Headlee Amendment, both of which limit the growth in property taxes year-to-year, Evans maintained, “Of the $418 million in lost tax receipts during this period, $240 million were the result of these tax limitations.”

I’m a Wayne County homeowner and my son attends public school here. The quality of public services in the county isn’t an economic abstraction, but rather something that affects my life on a daily basis. I could move just a bit to the northeast or northwest and get basically the same quality of life for much lower cost. Given that fact, I find it hard to contemplate adding more to my tax bill and to the tax bills of my friends, family and neighbors who wonder what they’re getting for the burdens we all already bear.

John Mozena is the vice president for marketing and public relations for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.