Friday, October 27, 2006

Leelanau County Operations Millage: More Myths

Myth Three: "The county has plenty of money. They just need to draw upon some of those big funds they're sitting on." People who talk like this are usually reading between the lines of an Enterprise article, finding evidence of hidden treasure. Recently I was shown this August 31 Enterprise article. Andy pointed to this passage:
The three major funds in Leelanau County are the General Fund, which is used mostly to fund operations, Capital Projects (building) Fund, and the Unpledged Delinquent Tax Fund, according to figures provided by Leelanau County treasurer Vicky Kilway.

Kilway is in charge of the tax fund, which is used to reimburse local governments when property owners don’t pay their taxes. Through interest and penalties, the fund has grown to more than $6.3 million, and more than any other source will pay for the $10 million county courthouse building. Some $4 million of the fund has been earmarked for the courthouse.
"See?" he said. "They still have 2.3 million dollars in the Delinquent Tax Fund, they can use that to balance the budget."

Actually, no. I had a chance to chat with Vicki Kilway, our county treasurer, yesterday.

"We could empty out the Delinquent Tax Fund," she explained. "But then, next spring when we had delinquent taxes, we would have to borrow money to cover our responsibilities. We would be paying interest on that loan instead of earning interest in the money we keep in reserve." Vicki explained that delinquent taxes typically run about $2.2 million a year. Suddenly that $2.3 million in reserve doesn't look like a whole lot of money.

Another frequently mentioned fund is the $1 million Budget Stabilization Fund. It sounds like just the thing to correct a budget deficit. But state law dictates that the Budget Stabilization fund can only be used at the end of a budget year, to compensate for expenses that came in over budget. (For Leelanau, this would typically be for snow removal in a 1978-caliber year, or some other disaster.) The state also dictates that only 1/3 of the fund may be used in a single year.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Myths about the Leelanau County Operations Millage

We're getting close to the end of campaign. This has been a hard one because there are so many forces that brought us to the point of needing a millage, yet it comes as a surprise to most people. Almost everyone eventually agrees that we need the millage, but first they need to be updated on county finance history and on how Michigan tax law works.
  • Myth One: "There must be plenty of tax money. Look at all the fancy houses that are going up!" If the county actually received more money every time a new house was built, we would be in great shape. In fact, because of the Headlee Amendment, county tax revenues can only grow at a rate equal to inflation. When the total taxable value times the millage rate equals a value that is bigger than last year's revenue plus inflation, the millage rates "rollback" so that tax revenues don't grow too big. This system was supposed to prevent government from growing as property values rise. Unfortunately, there is no compensation for increasing population in this formula.

    In Leelanau County, our population grew 28% between the 1990 census and 2000 census, yet our government got by on the same (inflation adjusted) revenues.

  • Myth Two: "Leelanau taxes are already too high!" In fact, Leelanau County has the lowest county tax rate of any of the Michigan counties. (In 1969, voters approved an operating millage of 6.2 mills, Headlee rollbacks have reduced this rate to 3.76 mills.)Even with the one mill increase to fund our operating budget, we will be in the lowest 10%. With property taxes, the debate about "how high is too high?" is clouded by another feature of the Headlee Amendment. There is a cap on how much the assessed value of a property can go up each year, so as a property stays in the same hands, the gap between assesed value and actual value grows. When a property is sold, the assesed value is determined by the sale price.

    Owners of two identical properties can pay wildly different property taxes; the family who has been there 20 years pays much less than the family that bought last year. The difference between Homestead and Non-homestead taxes adds another layer. The county website lets the nosy mouse-clicker check out exactly how all of the property in a neighborhood is assessed and who pays what in property taxes. A real estate agent's view of the Headlee amendment was recently published in a Grosse Pointe blog. Many of his points apply to Leelanau.

You may download a Question and Answer sheet about the County Operating Millage (Microsoft Word format) here. And here is a comparison of county millage rates in Michigan, 2004.

Monday, October 23, 2006

How Grandma Mimi became a 4-H Leader

When my girls were little I would often coerce them into sticking with an onerous task by telling them stories about their ancestors. Lately I've been thinking about my Grandma Mimi, and how she became a 4-H leader.

Mimi was not the sort of person who you would expect to volunteer for anything, let alone 4-H. She grew up in town, by her own admission a willful, spoiled child. Those of you who knew me ten years ago may remember me muttering about my willful, spoiled grandmother. At age 97 she still dressed to the nines every day and demanded that I take her to lunch and shopping at least once a week. She was a modern woman of the flapper era. As a teenager, she would sneak out to jazz clubs. As a young woman, she bobbed her hair, attended teacher's college and expected to make her own way in the world. Recently a family friend showed me a picture of her mom and my grandma in their twenties. They were dressed as sailors in order to sneak in to a Detroit burlesque show!

But times change and we have to change with them. By the 1930's, Mimi was a mom and a teacher, teaching at Warner School in Flushing. She was appalled to realize that the girls at her school were coming to school without underwear. During the Depression, even a few pairs of underwear were a luxury that few could afford. This is where 4-H comes into the story. Mimi went to the 4-H office and learned how to teach sewing. She taught her students how to sew their own underwear, from flour sacks.

Later she teamed up with Extension again, to set up a hot lunch program in her school. My mom tells of Mimi canvassing the county, accompanied by her friend from the sailor suit episode, convincing farmers to donate food so that kids could be assured of at least one good meal a day.

This is the image I come back to when I try to tell people why it so important to save Leelanau County's 4-H program. Other organizations have work with kids. Other organizations may include kids in their agendas. 4-H is the only organization dedicated to asking and answering the question "What do these real kids need, right now?" Times change, sometimes way too quickly, but childhood is short and kids' needs are immediate.

The time until the election is short, also, and 4-H needs your help. I know most of us volunteer for 4-H to work with kids, not because we like fundraising or campaigning. But, like Mimi, we are asked to reinvent ourselves to answer new challenges. Lets all challenge ourselves a little this week and ensure the future of Extension and 4-H.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Leelanau Operations Millage: No More Extension?

We had an MSU Extension Council Meeting this week. It was grim. Failing to pass the County Operations Millage would effectively dissolve the agreement that allows Cooperative Extension to operate in Leelanau County. Leelanau would go from having the model 4-H program to having no 4-H program at all.

I was impressed by the master list of County Extension projects. Extension is always doing more than I realized. The thought of losing these programs is terrifying.

If MSU Extension / 4-H are eliminated, the following programs would no longer be available in Leelanau County:

4-H Programs:

· 183 community members that currently volunteer in 4-H would no longer have the 4-H opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Leelanau County kids.

· 4-H clubs including 4-H skiing, 4-H horse and 4-H livestock clubs

·4-H Kids Club at any of the four schools (currently in Suttons Bay, Leland, Glen
Lake and Northport School collectively serving over 200 children)

· Summer child care in 4-H Explore Experience Leelanau in Leland, nor Summer child care at Suttons Bay or Glen Lake Schools (currently serving about 90 children)

· An organization that is flexible enough to address emerging needs (we don’t have a hard and fast agenda -- we do what the community asks for); the newest request was the after-school childcare program at Northport School.

·An organization that looks at what kids need and strives to meet that need (for
example, the new Guys’ Group is addressing the needs of middle school

· Mentoring program at Northport School (a full-time person at no cost to the county)

· Natural Helper program for the five high schools in the county (peer mentoring training for 25 teens each year)

· Child care grant dollars from United Way (almost $40,000 in the last 4 years)

· Insurance coverage for Voices and Choices and Girls on the Run (programs that partner with 4-H but who are facilitated by Leelanau County Family Coordinating Council and Family Court respectively)

· Leelanau County 4-H participation in the NW Michigan Fair

· Opportunities to host or travel on a 4-H international exchange (2 families hosted last year; one member traveled this year)

· Young teens experiencing a university campus (this year we took 53 teens and 15 adults to 4-H Exploration Days)

· Volunteer training opportunities at the 4-H Kettunen Center near Cadillac

· Opportunities for families to attend 4-H Family Science Weekend at the 4-H Kettunen Center (we’ve had 3-6 families attend that event for the last 5 years)

· 4-H Youth Association which annually provides over $4,000 in scholarships to 4-H members and leaders to attend leadership & citizenship experiences

· Event for 4-H members to showcase their projects (4-H EXPO each Spring)

· 4-H Horse Council which oversees 64 county young people with a passion for horses

· 4-H Livestock Council which oversees 204 youth learning about and raising animals

· Volunteers to help foster kids get their drivers license

· Involvement in promoting the cherry industry by hosting a petting zoo at the Cherry Festival’s Cherry Connection event at the Hort Station

· Opportunity for our local youth to compete in the statewide photo contest (Leelanau County had one of the 12 state winners this year!)

· Opportunity for young people to strive to achieve a State 4-H Award (Leelanau County had a regional winner this year!)

· Participation in Capitol Experience and Citizenship Washington Focus (events for teens where they experience and learn about state and national government respectively)

· Screening of volunteers who work with children (criminal history checks with the Michigan State Police, personal interviews in their home, 2 reference checks)

· Opportunity to win a college scholarship from the Johnson Foundation (each year they give nearly $100,000, half of which must go to seniors who were involved in 4-H)

· Access for volunteers to a major university with regards to training, liability insurance, curriculum, resources, specialists, etc.

Agriculture & Community Development Programs:

· Local information/bulletins on crops & farm management

· Ag consulting on pesticide and fertilizer recommendations

· Diagnostics for crop production problems

· Local Value-Added Counselor for MSU Product Center

· Entrepreneurial classes/workshops for new ag businesses

· Coordination of four Leelanau Farmers Markets; including administering Project Fresh and Senior Fresh to seniors and tribal elders (coupons to purchase local produce)

· Local representative on local food system development effort (Taste the Local Difference – TLD)

· Staff support for local Leelanau County Farmland Preservation Board

· Tractor Safety Classes for youth

· Contact for labor regulations & Labor Management Program

· Leadership training sessions for potential community leaders

· Local member of Emergency Board for Crop Disaster Program

·Citizen Planner Training; workshop for local planners

· Local session for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Update

· Income Tax Sessions for farmers

· Farm Safety Program for farmers & farm workers

· TelFarm Payroll & Accounting Sessions

· Local Horticultural Society to support grower needs

· Local ag & natural resource information and education workshops for Leelanau County; ie, Wind Energy, Estate Planning, Hispanic Pesticide Education, Alternative Energy, Organic Farming, Value-Added, Farmland Preservation Programs and developing issues

Master Gardener / Home Horticulture Programs:

· Answer horticultural-related questions from the public; identification and

· Coordinate Master Gardener Volunteer Training program (40 hr. research-based educational course attended annually by approximately 40 residents)

· Currently coordinate approximately 200 Master Gardener Volunteers completing over 2500 hrs of community service annually serving thousands of people in Leelanau and Grand Traverse Counties.

· Mentor at-risk kids through the Leelanau Community Garden (cooperation with the Leelanau Family Probate Court & MSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers)

· Produce and donate approximately 500 lbs of fresh vegetables to Leelanau County food pantries. (Grown in Leelanau Community Garden)

· Sponsor the Master Gardener Association of Northwest Michigan, which hosts horticultural-related educational events in Leelanau/Grand Traverse region.

Family & Consumer Science Programs:

· Parent Education - Parent education classes for Leelanau county families.

· Cherry Connection - Week long cherry festival event that occurs in Leelanau County. (Brings approximately 2000 tourists to Leelanau County at an event featuring locally made cherry products. Promotes local cherry business as well as local farms.)

· Safe Kids - Unintentional injury prevention programs for children under the age of 14. (Unintentional injury prevention education is provided to parents around safety with car seats and bike helmet usage. Car Seats and bike helmets are given to families who don't have appropriate safety equipment.)

· Financial Management Education - General financial management education for youth at the alternative high school as well as traditional high school.

· Family Nutrition Program; current scheduling includes the Leelanau Peninsula
School and the Suttons Bay High school in the Life Skills classes

· Family Nutrition Program at the Grand Traverse Band with youth and elders in Peshawbestown.

· Nutrition education for non-FNP audience - General wellness education focused around the food guide pyramid and staying fit.

· Monthly Project Fresh classes at the Leelanau/Benzie Health Department and Commodity Supplemental Food Program at the VFW Hall in Lake Leelanau

· Home Nutrition Series; informational sessions to TOPS groups and at Senior Meal Sites

List compiled by the Extension office staff

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Leelanau Operations Millage: Why are we Broke?

The scary thing about the upcoming operations millage is that almost nobody is aware of it. The decision to hold the millage was made late, with so much equivocation by the Board of Commissioners, that most people lost interest or think that the millage was cancelled. The Farmland Preservation Millage is getting lots of publicity, but the Operations Millage (which also funds the Farmland Preservation Board) gets lost in the noise.

There have been signs of trouble in the operations budget. In the 2003 budget, Leelanau County cut out cost-of-living raises in order to balance the budget. Local governments saw a small decrease in state revenue sharing that year, but were able to absorb the loss.

This also was the year that we voted to start collecting the $2.12 per month 911 surcharge on our phone bills to fund our new, upgraded 911 service. Not much was said about the "sunset" provision of this revenue, which is now expiring, leaving a $800,000 hole in the operations budget.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Leelanau County Operations Millage

Leelanau County heads towards an important crossroads in the upcoming election. Voters will be asked to approve a one mill tax increase to preserve our present level of county services. While the tax increase itself is modest, I am worried about this millage because many people just don't realize what is at stake and will either vote "no" on the general idea of taxes or will fail to vote on the proposals at all.

Here is what a "no" vote means:

Elimination of the following programs

  • 9-1-1/Emergency Management Services (EMS) staff
  • Public Safety: Marine Safety Unit, Narcotics Deputy (TNT), Animal Control Officer, Community Work Program
  • Human Services- MSU Extension/4-H/Master Gardener, Budgets for Parks &

Reductions in these services:

  • Law Enforcement deputies
  • Family Court direct service staff
  • Prosecutor's support staff
  • Staff for the Clerk, Treasurer, Register of Deeds, Equalization, Planning, and Administration

The nuts and bolt of these cuts is mind-boggling. County departments are still scrambling to come up with a Plan B in case the millage fails, but it's looking something like this:

We will still be able to call 911, but our current 911 dispatchers will be laid off and our calls may be answered by a dispatch center in another county. No more Marine Safety Patrol, no more Animal Control Officer. Fewer road patrols.

MSU Extension, which relies on matching funds from Federal, State, and County budgets, would be closed down. Even though Leelanau County funds less than 30% of Leelanau's Extension budget ($166,677 in 2005) , it will cease to exist without the county's share of funding.

4-H and all 4-H programs will shut down. No livestock clubs, no horse clubs, no chess clubs, no Fair. Our after school program, Kids Club, serving 200 kids at 5 county schools, would close its doors. Exploration Days, the annual opportunity for teens to experience a taste of college life on the MSU campus, would no longer be available to Leelanau teens. The Johnson Scholarships, nearly $100,000 a year for local college students, would be less accessible to our county's kids, since 50% of that fund is earmarked for 4-H kids. 4-H Youth Association scholarships (over $4000 last year for a wide variety of learning opportunities for kids of all ages and volunteers) will no longer be available.

A "no" vote means the loss of priceless things, as well. We can't put a dollar value on a quick response to a 911 call. Or on the over 200 people that volunteer with MSU Extension through 4-H , the Master Gardener program, and other programs. Or having a real person answer the Equalization department phone when we have a question about our taxes.

We can calculate what it will cost each of us to save these services, and the cost is surprisingly reasonable. The median residential parcel in Leelanau County has a taxable value of $59,000. Move the decimal point 3 places to the left to find out what the cost will be per year. The owner of a home with a $60,000 taxable value, the average homeowner, will pay $60 more per year, or $5 per month. That's not much, but our homeowner's monthly budget will also benefit from the expiration of the current 911 surcharge on their land-line phone bill. Your taxes go up by $5 per month, but your phone bill will go down by $2.12 per month.

That's less than three dollars a month for a whole lot of services. Three dollars a month for the programs that keep us safe, that care for our children, that define our community. Are we voting for our pocketbooks or are we voting for our community?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

My Man Stan

Brother Tim has a new book out. This one is a kids' book about hockey and time travel, centered on Stan Mikita, who played for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1960's.

The time travel device is simple. When you listen to a game on the Magic Radio, you are transported back in time. Not a lot of sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, and if you doubted that a radio could do this, Tim's powerful descriptions of the hockey action are a handy testament to the power of words to transport the mind.

Both Makita and the young narrator are learning to control volatile tmepers, but the storyline doesn't wander over to preaching. I enjoyed the book as a good read.

Here is a link to My Man Stan. Tim's website is here.