Letter: Local governments need special assessments

The Detroit News

The Citizens Research Council’s recent report and opinion ("Special assessments are hidden taxes," June 20) on public safety special assessments used by Michigan’s local governments is an aberration from CRC’s usual clear-eyed analysis of public policy. Contrary to CRC’s assertion that public safety special assessments are “sneaky tactics” to raise revenues, they are more equitable, visible, and constrained by law than the higher property taxes that CRC prefers to fund public safety services.

The Manistee Fire Department was entered into the Guinness World Records as the oldest continuously manned operating fire station." Firefighter Fred LaPoint worked two years to create and win the world record designation.

Police and fire special assessments were authorized by the Michigan legislature 68 years ago to fund essential public safety services in growing communities with limited taxing authority. As more communities suffer stagnating or declining tax bases, special assessments are sometimes the only viable funding option to keep police on the streets and fire departments available to respond.

Special assessments are not “hidden taxes.” Public Act 51 of 1951 and case law impose public notification and limitations that are not required for property taxes. Public safety special assessments must be voter approved if petitioned by a mere 10% of landowners. A public hearing must also be held with a legal notice published in a newspaper — another requirement not applicable to property taxes. While property taxes must be uniformly applied regardless of benefit, the law limits special assessments to the amount that the property’s value is enhanced by the presence of the public safety service. The local governing board is required to annually determine the amount to be levied — another requirement that does not apply to property taxes.

Abolishing public safety special assessments would cause fiscal chaos and disrupt essential public safety services in many communities. For decades, special assessments have been an essential element of the local government’s revenue structure and levied without objection. Because property taxes must be levied uniformly, special assessments are the only way to separate public safety funding between townships and villages. Special assessments are also fairer than property taxes to farmers owning lands benefiting less from police and fire departments than residential, commercial and industrial property owners.

The Citizens Research Council sanguinely recommends abolishing local police and fire departments and creating regional services provided by new layers of local government — fire and police authorities — with independent taxing powers. However, adjacent local governments are not necessarily homogeneous in their public safety needs and financing capacity — two essential elements for viable public safety authorities.

Public safety special assessments should remain in local governments’ financial toolbox.

Larry Merrill, executive director

Michigan Townships Association