Our choices in the Birmingham election
Residents in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills are being asked to choose candidates to fill seats on their city commissions in the November 5 election. In Bloomfield Hills, there are five candidates to fill five open seats, so there is no contest. In Birmingham, eight candidates, including three incumbents, are seeking to fill four open seats.
Downtown newsmagazine invited all eight candidates in the Birmingham race to answer questions via a questionnaire which our editorial staff felt were important and relevant to the job of city commissioner. Responses are available in our October issue's Voter Guide as well as on our website, downtownpublications.com, so Birmingham residents can read and review as they make their determinations at the polls and via absentee ballots.
We offer our endorsements on this page, reached after careful deliberation, as one of the voices in the community. Our endorsements are based on candidate answers and our knowledge of the people seeking this office. We established criteria that we felt candidates should meet for our backing. For starters, we looked for depth of knowledge on the issues confronting the city at this point in time and the candidates' positions. A candidate's previous formal involvement in the city also played into our decision. Equally important, we looked at a person's ability to work collaboratively with six other commissioners while presenting their viewpoint, rather than acting just as a disrupter. There is a fine line between being assertive when attempting to sway the opinion of others and being simply combative and confrontational. Toxic personalities have no place on the commission. We also overlooked any candidates who seemed not to understand the role of a commissioner is to set policy and provide long-term guidance for the city, then let the professionals who make up the administration do their job without interference. Lastly, long-term residency by any candidate does not mean you are qualified to be on the commission.
Three incumbents on the current city commission are seeking a second four-year term, and we give a wholehearted endorsement to PATTY BORDMAN and PIERRE BOUTROS. Without question, they deserve voters returning them to office. It takes time for new commissioners to learn the ropes, and each have found their way. While they do not always agree on every issue, they understand the importance of working respectfully and collaboratively as team players.
Bordman has come into her own this year as the city's mayor. She has her finger on the current master plan discussions and discussions being held on how to moderate prices for residential housing, along with the issues of parking in the downtown core and the concerns of the neighborhoods. She understands the functioning of city hall. Unfortunately she has been made the target of unfair and insidious criticism fostered by an outlier faction in the community. We call BS. Her knowledge and skills are an asset for deciding the future of the city. She has done a good job and she must be returned to office.
Boutros is a personable local resident and businessman who, because of a paperwork snafu leftover from the previous election, was not able to be certified to have his name on the ballot – but he is eligible to run as a write-in candidate. Because of his love and dedication to the city, he is making an extra effort to make sure voters retain him. Boutros fully comprehends the incalculable value of pursuing public/private partnerships, the importance of finding a solution to the long-term parking issue in the city, or in determining the right way to achieve more affordable housing in the downtown core, that market forces – not “forcing markets” – must be considered. In order to return Boutros to the commission, voters must first fill in the box on the ballot next to the blank space, then write in his name.
For the third spot open on the commission, we were most impressed with THERESE LONGE, who has spent 15 years of service on the Birmingham Parks and Recreation board, and is the current chair. Her long-term involvement and commitment to the city gives her an understanding of the issues the commission will face and she has the capacity to bring new ideas for consideration. We expect Longe's learning curve will be brief, and anticipate that through her years of city service she developed collaborative skills and the understanding of how to work as a team in the city's best interest.
Our last endorsement goes to CARROLL DEWEESE, albeit with some reservation. We usually wait for some challenger to raise questions about a sitting incumbent but we simply cannot totally ignore what we know about DeWeese. He talks a good game about his commitment to the city and his understanding of issues – the need for more affordable housing, alternate uses for parking, as well as changes that will be required in the zoning code, and is a strong advocate for seniors and senior services, which it is fair to say was his base of support in the last election. But commitment must be demonstrated better if he gets a second term, which includes putting the city as the prime concern rather than his personal activities schedule. Further, of all the commissioners elected in the last election, he has shown the least growth after four years in the position, surprising after the years he spent with the city planning board.
We understand the logic of sticking with the devil you know best, but for those looking for an alternative, we are most comfortable with JAKE GERMAN. The city often seeks younger involvement to build the bench, so to speak, for the future, and we were impressed with German. While not yet as knowledgeable as some of the other candidates, he appears to be a quick understudy, with the right attitude and temperament for the job. Voters won't go wrong opting for German.
BIRMINGHAM PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Forty-three percent of the Birmingham Schools operating budget comes from local taxes, which consists of millages assessed on homestead property (your principal residence) and non-homestead property, which is industrial, commercial and rental property, along with second-home residences.
State law sets a limit of 14.24 mills on homestead property and the Headlee Tax Limitation constitutional amendment says that the millage amount each year cannot exceed the prior years' tax revenue amount, plus an increase equal to either five percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. The current millage levy in Birmingham Schools on primary residences is 7.1948 mills. The last time voters were asked to renew this part of the operating budget was in 2016, and the tax won't expire until 2021. Like in all school districts and government units, annual millage amounts get rolled back to keep in line with the state constitution limit on revenue increases from year-to-year.
On non-homestead property, the state caps the maximum tax at 18 mills. The current millage rate on non-homestead property is 17.5821 mills, thanks to rollbacks. Voters were last asked to approve this part of the operating budget tax in 2011, and it won't expire until June of 2022.
The ballot proposal facing voters this November would renew these two separate taxes as one proposal effective through 2028.
On non-homestead property, the district is asking voters to set a higher authorization limit of 21 mills, even though voter-approved Proposal A says only 18 mills can be levied on industrial, commercial, rental and second-home property each year. The district says this would allow it every year to continue to automatically circumvent Headlee.
Here's why Birmingham Public Schools, and other districts in past years, are taking this approach. The state school funding allotted to each district provides what is known as a per-pupil foundation amount each year. This state per-pupil amount assumes that the district is actually levying the full 18 mills of non-homestead tax. The state does not make up the difference between the local revenues that the district has the opportunity to collect, and the minimum foundation allowance. If the district does not collect all of the allowable tax at the full 18-mill rate, the district suffers a cut in funding. In the case of Birmingham Schools, this amounts to a loss of about $500,000 each year.
While we are not big fans of an ongoing override of the Headlee rollback, we also understand the impact of the quirk in the state per-pupil funding formula and assume taxpayers would rather accept this approach than suffer voter fatigue with the district returning more frequently to ask for an override at the ballot box.
So we are recommending that voters say YES to the Birmingham Schools millage proposal.
OAKLAND COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Residents in Oakland County are being asked this election to authorize OCC to continue levying its .7545 mill for 10 years, in an operating millage renewal, from 2022 through 2031. It is a renewal of a 2010 operating millage which expires with the 2021 tax levy. The renewal deserves a YES vote.