Lansing voters will decide on election day whether they want to increase their property taxes.
It’s the second time they’ve been asked this year. The first time they said ‘no’.
Sitting at his dining room table, as three of his sons watch cartoons on a TV in the next room, Paul Johns recalled a time when he thought he smelled smoke in his south Lansing home.
"And I just kept smelling an odor…so I wasn’t sure….being that this is an older home…I thought maybe there was a fire in my walls," Johns remembered, "so I called the fire station…and I could literally hear the fire truck…come from the station to our home…and they came rather quickly.”
But that fire station, just a few blocks from the Johns home, is now closed. Shutdown earlier this year as part of the city’s need to close a multi-million dollar budget hole. The cuts included layoffs for firefighters and police officers. And more budget cuts may be coming.
Lansing’s mayor’s office predicts that the capital city may be between $12 to $15 million in the hole again next year. Rising costs and shrinking city tax revenues are being blamed.
So the city is asking voters for a millage increase. The last time this happened in Lansing voters said ‘no’. And that was just this past May.
However, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero says this time is different. He says, after last summer’s budget cuts to public safety, the public knows what’s at stake.
“We have nowhere else to turn. We’ve been prudent. We’ve been conservative. We’ve made cuts. We’ve gotten (union contract) concessions. I’ve cut my pay. All of my people have made sacrifices. There is no place else to turn," said Bernero.
John Pollard doesn’t believe the mayor. Ever. The frequent critic of Lansing city government said Lansing’s home owners, many of them retirees, can’t afford to pay more property taxes. That is despite the mayor’s repeated claims that with shrinking property values, most Lansing homeowners won’t notice a change in their property tax bill if the millage vote passes.
Pollard said Mayor Bernero and his city council allies are overstating the need for the millage increase based on budget and revenue projections that are hazy at best.
“They couldn’t tell you where they are right now….where we’re going to be in January….but somehow we’re supposed to vote on November 8th because of what should happen in July…based on what?" questioned Pollard.
Lansing’s firefighters are working hard to convince city residents to vote for the millage hike. Brian Epling is the president of the Lansing firefighters union. He said the budget cuts made this year have already made Lansing less safe.
“This is absolutely vital to at least maintain the level of service we have now," said Epling. " The Lansing fire Department as we stand today we do not meet the national standard for career and professional fire departments and emergency medical delivery. We fear right now as we are inadequately staffed and funded today….that can only get worse …”
Whatever Lansing voters decide further cuts to public safety are likely to come.
Lansing mayor Virg Bernero admitted the millage increase would only cover about half the projected budget deficit next year. So even if the millage passes, police and fire layoffs are a possibility. And with the expectation that property values will continue fall, and with them tax revenues, Lansing like many other Michigan cities potentially faces years of painful budget cutting.