Misinformation about SAD abounds in township

May 17, 2019

A proposed special assessment district (SAD) tax in Bloomfield Township that would raise about $9 million a year for 15 years is the center for controversy at public meetings and on social media as both those for and against it are crying foul.

Introduced as part of a larger plan to shore up money for some $164 million in unfunded liabilities related to retiree healthcare costs and other post-employee benefits (OPEB), the proposed tax would reduce the township's general fund contribution for public safety, in turn freeing up that money for increased payments to the township's OPEB trust fund.

Last December, the township announced it would need to fill a $65 million funding gap over the next 30 years in order to pre-fund the trust fund at 40 percent, as required by a change in Michigan state law. Prior to the change, communities weren't required to pre-fund retiree obligations and were allowed to pay for expenses as they came due.

Bloomfield Township officials said the funding change will result in a structural deficit of $5 million to $7 million in the township's annual budget. In order to stave off major cuts to staff and services, including roughly 10 police officer positions and eight firefighters, the board of trustees in April approved placing the public safety SAD before voters in a special election this August.

While state law doesn't require SADs to be approved by voters, elected officials backing the proposal said voter approval is appropriate because it will direct the township on whether residents support the increase as a means to retain current services or slashing services and programs.

From the start of the discussion, trustees Dani Walsh and Dave Buckley – both of whom voted against putting the SAD on the ballot – have opposed asking for any tax increase, particularly prior to the township making cuts to its budget. And from the get-go, Walsh has taken issue with the item being billed as a public safety issue because it originates from a benefits funding issue in the making for decades.

Those in support of the SAD say the issue is directly related to public safety, as those employees make up about two-thirds of retirees, and because the largest cuts would come from police and fire staff if the tax isn't approved by voters.

“No matter how many times you continually state this is not a public safety issue, we will state unequivocally it is a public safety issue,” Bloomfield Township Police Chief Scott McCanham and Fire Chief Michael Morin said in a May 9 open letter to Walsh. “Over and above the millage that support police, fire and dispatch, the general fund puts another $6.67 million into our operations. If the money isn't there, the only way to continue is to downsize our operations.”

While Walsh has said the issue is more of an interpretation of the facts and how the issue is framed, the two chiefs, the township supervisor and other board members have taken issue with the accuracy of statements Walsh has repeatedly made on social media. Those include an inaccurate estimate of what the proposed tax would cost at least one specific homeowner – a mistake Walsh said she made after passing along information from someone else – as well as the actual amount that could be realized from program cuts.

“Never in our combined 60-plus years of service to Bloomfield Township did we ever think we would need to reply to the totally false statements of an elected official,” the chiefs said in their letter included in the board's May 13 meeting. “In regards to your post, we feel the residents should have the correct facts.”

Walsh, who said she first learned of the letter when she received the meeting packet, said those accusing her of spreading false information should practice what they preach.

“That's the first time I saw it, it was in this board packet because that's the way things work here,” she said. “I was completely shocked. … I don't do personal attacks, I just show facts. When you tell the truth, you don't need to attack people's character.”

Walsh then pointed out a mistake in the letter from the chiefs, which stated the total savings from potential budget cuts cited in a recent report by public accountants Plante Moran was $6 million to $7 million shy of the amount actually cited in the report.

“Plante Moran came up with $1.4 million in proposed cuts to programs and departments if all of their recommendations were implemented, which include 10 fewer police officers, eight fewer firefighters and outsourcing dispatch, as well as cutting back the general fund contribution to the road department,” the chiefs said in their letter, which should have listed the potential savings at $6.4 to $7.4 million. “When the survey showed these items were not acceptable to the residents the proposed potential savings came to approximately $600,000.”

Bloomfield Township Supervisor Leo Savoie said the $600,000 in savings wasn't considered as he believes it would impact services that many in the township have come to expect. Further, he said elimination of those services would be felt by residents and do little to fill the overall funding gap each year.

The $1.4 million amount refers to an estimate that Walsh identified and confirmed at an April 8 board meeting with Plante Moran, that could be cut from the budget outside of direct cuts to police, fire and road services. Those cuts include a maximum of  $200,000 by eliminating the township's animal welfare department; $400,000 by contracting assessing services with Oakland County; $340,000 by eliminating township programs, such as its support for the Dream Cruise, household hazardous waste collections, gypsy moth control and other programs; and $500,000 in cuts to services and staff that don't include public safety or the road program.

Walsh's response followed a public statement on Monday, May 13, by Savoie, addressing the responsibilities of public officials to put out accurate information when discussing issues as an elected representative of the township.

“There are a number of different things being said by the public and elected officials,” Savoie said at the board's meeting. “Our job as elected officials is to make sure that all the info goes out by this board is factual. We may advocate one way or another, but when it's put out by the supervisor and this board, it has to be fact.”

Specifically addressing the $1.4 million in savings, Savoie pointed out that the low-end estimate provided by Plante Moran was closer to $1 million. Further, he said some of the measures would have indirect impacts on public safety and roads. For instance, as also pointed out by Plante Moran, some staff positions identified for cuts provide ancillary support to police, fire and roads, such as maintenance workers and mechanics. When removing those and other items identified by a recent citizens survey as priorities for residents, the potential savings is closer to $600,000.

Ultimately, Walsh claimed the letter was part of a political tactic by Savoie to attack her credibility. She then referred to a 2016 letter signed by 10 Bloomfield Township officials that protested the conduct of former Treasurer Dan Devine, who had accused Savoie of kidnapping Devine's daughter and filed a failed whistleblower lawsuit against the township.

“Frankly, I'm disappointed in both of you for condoning this political tactic by signing a letter filled with completely false, inaccurate statements that could have been discussed if you would have sent me the letter, instead of choosing to put it in the board packet to see it as the same time as the public,” Walsh said.

Savoie said his statements and the related letter were only in response to misleading information and not to any particular political position. While he agreed the letter from the chiefs included a wrong amount in total savings, he said it remains that the estimate of $1.4 million in cuts isn't realistic without impacting public safety or roads to some extent.

“When this all emanated, it wasn't by the desire of either chief to publicly address an elected official,” he said, “but when the elected official starts publicly going onto social media and starts posting her position with misstatements, half-truths and mistruths out there, that's where it emanated from. I will just leave it at that.”

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