Tax increase is viewed differently from levy's two sides
A proposed property tax levy for the Liberty Township Fire Department would raise taxes, but local officials diverge on how to best characterize the level of the increase.
If the Nov. 6 levy passes, individual taxpayers in Powell and Liberty Township would see their tax rate for emergency services go up by 42 percent, jumping from $143 to $202 annually per $100,000 in home value.
Levy opponents such as township Trustee Melanie Leneghan and former Trustee Peggy Guzzo have pounced on that figure, calling the proposed five-year, 6.6-mill levy an unreasonable tax hike.
During the trustees' Aug. 6 meeting, Guzzo said the issue forces residents to make an "agonizing choice" between a tax increase and laying off workers.
"I do not support the levy because I believe it feeds into an unsustainable business model, and we have too many public services competing for the same limited tax dollars," she said.
But other township officials said Guzzo's charge ignores the realities of how a levy works.
In the 10 years since the current 6-mill levy was passed, the cost of running the fire department has risen drastically -- and taxpayers have paid less and less.
In fact, the proposed 6.6-mill levy represents just a 10 percent increase over the levy's original collection rate when it was approved by voters in 2002.
The low collection rate seen today is a byproduct of the township's rapid growth in the past decade. When the current levy passed, it cost taxpayers roughly $184 annually per $100,000 in home value -- about $40 more than it costs them today.
But in subsequent years, the township's population exploded. In 2000, it had roughly 15,429 residents, but by 2011 it swelled to 28,296 residents, who live in nearly three times as many homes.
With more residents to cover fire department expenses, individual tax rates declined sharply.
That's because a levy's millage is calculated to meet a set collection goal. The current fire levy's 6 mills were meant to cover the budget of the fire department at 2002 levels.
Levies can't collect more than originally intended, so as the township grew, the tax burden was spread among more people, and the tax levy's effective collection rate dropped to 4.64 mills.
Meanwhile, the fire department continued to operate with the same revenue stream for 10 years, despite staffing levels rising from six firefighters per shift to 15.
In reality, the 6 mills passed in 2002 collected more than the fire department's budget, generating big surpluses, but Township Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber said that's by design.
A five-year levy has to carry the fire department through the issue's approved life cycle without increasing the amount of money collected each year. Surpluses generated at the beginning of the term cover increased operating expenses at the end of the term, including department growth, the rising cost of gas and equipment and unexpected catastrophes.
That's what happened in the five years after the 6-mill levy was renewed in 2007.
Now, in 2012, expenditures outpace the revenue by more than $1 million, and the fire department's reserves are dwindling.
Fire Chief Tim Jensen said the proposed levy wouldn't raise taxes in order to expand services, but simply to maintain the current level of services.
The township fire department currently has about 50 employees.
Leneghan and other detractors said the township doesn't need -- and can't afford -- those staffing levels.
She said the new levy simply would continue to feed a bloated department, and the fire department's warnings about reduced levels of service if the levy fails are "scare tactics."
Township Administrator Dave Anderson fired back this week, saying those who point to the 42 percent increase out of context are using "the biggest financial scare tactic of all."
"It sounds so dramatic," he said. "It's a mathematically accurate statement, but it does not convey the financial realities of the last 10 years."
Gerber said voters should focus on the real dollar amount of the increase instead of the percentage. For the average resident with a $300,000 home, the 42 percent hike represents an increase of about $15 per month.