The Grosse Ile Civic Association asked township supervisor candidates incumbent Brian Loftus and Tom Burkhart five questions about property tax, budget and finances.
Civic association officials shared the questionaire and candidate responses with Trenton-Grosse Ile Patch.
Here are the questions asked by the Grosse Ile Civic Association follow by respones by candidates Brian Loftus and Tom Burkhart:
1. The Township 2012-2013 operating budget is projected to run a more than $450,000 annual deficit that will increase in coming years. This deficit is being covered by a reduction in the Township's reserve funds.
Question: Do you believe the budget must be balanced without the use of the Township's reserve funds? If so, what specific budget cuts or tax increases do you propose?
Tom Burkhart: "To a certain extent, the voters will answer this question when they approve or reject the 5 year Millage to Maintain Current Police Department Operations and the 3 year Millage Renewal for Purchase Open Space Land.
"That vote will tell us whether voters believe the current level of township services and benefits have good value and warrant higher taxes or will tell us the current level of taxation will not be raised to address budget problems.
"The presence of the Police Millage proposal on the November ballot will either resolve the crisis or will remove tax increases as a possible piece of the resolution. Given these ballot issues, this question’s focus on reserve funds makes the question irrelevant.
"Approval of the new 5 year Millage to Maintain Current Police Department Operations resolves the current crisis to the extent that the reserve funds will not be significant to balancing the budget. Rejection of this 5 year millage will necessitate use of the reserve funds until the new Board understands the avenues available and agrees upon an appropriate course of action.
"Approval or rejection of the 3 year Millage Renewal for Purchase Open Space Land will send an unclear message because it is a renewal, not a new tax. Will voters reject this millage to offset the new police millage? Will they reject because they cannot afford Grosse Ile’s tax burden? Will this millage be approved because it is a renewal? Will it be approved because of overwhelming support of the Open Space effort regardless of cost? Will this millage be rejected because voters realize the real estate taken off the tax roles to be Open Space is a significant contributor to the current budget revenue problem?
"As supervisor, I will strive to follow the path the voters give us through their vote this November."
Brian Loftus: "We cannot continue to drain the cash reserves, and there is only one cost center with a large enough expenditure list to make offsetting cuts – the Police Department.
"While we do not expect our revenues to continue to decrease, I do not anticipate any revenue enhancements that will begin to cover the $1.7 million that the General Fund expends to fully fund GIPD (over the $1.1 million that police revenues currently net).
"With a Police millage on the ballot, the voters will tell me what they are willing to pay for."
2. The Township has an unfunded pension liability for retired Township government employees that is estimated to total more than $7 million. This unfunded pension liability is projected to grow in coming years.
Question: Do you believe that the Township must take action to begin to resolve this unfunded liability in the 2012-2013 budget? If so, what specific measures do you propose?
Tom Burkhart: Yes. "Of course, this is an issue to be reviewed. The question is when a change in the current plan for resolution can be financially viable. With the current problem of expenditures exceeding revenues, this issue must be prioritized and addressed as one aspect of an overall plan to restore Grosse Ile Township to solid and sustainable fiscal stability
"My specific plan is to avoid the poorly thought out actions of the past including failure of due diligence when bringing suit against the Toll Bridge Company and continuation of that suit under the Loftus Board. I talked with the Toll Bridge attorney prior to the November 2008 election. He indicated willingness to settle for one million. The Loftus Board continued the suit and cost us a million and a half.
"Then there is the sewer project where we again pursued a legal decision rather than reasoned negotiation. And let us not forget the million dollar road to the seasonally used soccer fields."
Brian Loftus: "There are many, many moving parts to the pension dilemma that has been foist upon Grosse Ile as well as every other municipality in Michigan. Few are aware that public pensions are protected in Michigan’s Constitution (no other pensions are). This means that neither an Emergency Manager nor an Emergency Financial Manager can relieve a community of these burdens.
"Should excess revenues exist in the upcoming budget, these liabilities will be at least partially funded. To fund them now would require an additional drain on our dwindling reserves, a step I am not inclined to take.
"Michigan’s entire public retirement system needs a legislative overhaul."
3. Question: Do you support the proposed millage increase for the Grosse Ile Police Department that is on the ballot? If not, what is your plan for reducing Police Department personnel or making budget cuts in other areas of the General Fund budget to maintain the Police Department's current personnel levels?
Tom Burkhart: "This question is like question #1 above. It does not matter what the candidates plan. The issue is on the ballot and will be decided by Grosse Ile voters.
"A more relevant question would be “What happens if the voters reject the millage?” Unfortunately, cutting “other areas” really means “eliminating other areas” if the goal is to maintain current police staffing levels. The realistic answer is that police coverage will be reduced and other programs will be severely curtailed."
Brian Loftus: "I will not take a public position on this ballot issue. This is a rare opportunity for a decision maker – a referendum that will tell me what to do during the next budget preparation session.
"The shareholders in this community will tell me, with their tax dollars, what they want in terms of future police services."
4. The Township's Master Plan was last updated in a comprehensive manner during 2002 and has only been reviewed in a cursory manner during the last 10 years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Grosse Ile's population peaked in 2000 at 10,894 and is currently about 10,371 -- approximately a 5% decline during the last 10 years.
Some residents believe that it is time to reconsider the Township's land use and housing policies to promote population growth given the Southeastern Council of Governments (SEMCOG) has forecast that Grosse Ile's population will decline an additional 8.6% by 2040. These residents assert that a long period of significant population decline may have a severely negative impact on property values, Grosse Ile Schools, local businesses and Township tax revenues.
Question: Do you believe it would be beneficial to update and revise the 2002 Master Plan to promote population growth?
Tom Burkhart: "Although I have a position regarding the Master Plan, I do not accept it as an issue to be answered YES or NO.
"Our township has just completed a review of the Master Plan and the product of that review will not have an effect on population. I believe Grosse Ile can be one of the top 2 or 3 most preferred communities in Metro Detroit. We can have some of the highest property values and most attractive living conditions in Southeast Michigan. But first, voters must decide what they want for Grosse Ile.
"It is OK to continue the intent for Grosse Ile to be Southeast Michigan’s “Best Kept Secret’. If that is the preferred path, the current Master Plan is fine."
"If voters prefer to change the path, the Board must define that path and create a new Master Plan as one aspect of the actions being implemented to achieve the stated goal of the new path.
"I believe the most beneficial thing the Board can do is to take their lead on this and other items from the voter."
Brian Loftus: "SEMCOG has been notoriously inaccurate in its predictions, as has every other prognosticator, but we must take positive steps to arrest population decline.
"I would estimate Grosse Ile’s current population closer to 10,200, hopefully now stable. By law, we must update the Master Plan every five years, and it has been updated within the last three years (not exactly sure of the year).
"I agree that our zoning restrictions (“snob zoning”) are outdated and poorly planned for an uncertain future. As a residential community, we must evolve to keep our homes, classrooms and storefronts fully occupied. We can see too many nearby examples of where people 'used to live'."
5. Since the Open Space Program was established in the early 1990s, the Township has acquired hundreds-of-acres of property at a cost of more than $10 million paid by Island taxpayers.
Question: Do you support the Open Space Program millage that is on the ballot to continue property acquisition?
Tom Burkhart: No. "Given the township’s budget situation, this is an inappropriate time to renew this millage.
"By avoiding this renewal, the cost of the new police millage will be less of a financial burden on residents."
Brian Loftus: "I will not take a public position on this issue, I will implement whatever result the voters decide upon."
*A precvious version of the article erroneously used Grosse Ile Civic Commission.