2018-06-21 / Front Page

Fire dept. falls $600,000 short

Ballot mishap blamed
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

Members of the Suttons Bay-Bingham Fire and Rescue Authority last week received a very unpleasant surprise.

They discovered that the 2.3-mill property tax levy voters approved in the two townships in August 2016 to support their fire and rescue department won’t raise the $1.2 million officials said it would.

The $1.2 million figure was included in ballot language provided by the fire and rescue authority’s attorney.

It turns out the millage raised only $942,000 in 2016. Revenues supporting the department’s budget in 2016 ended up coming in about $304,000 short.

Now, the department is behind by about $609,000.

Because of the timing of annual tax collections, disbursements and routine financial reconciliations, officials said they didn’t notice the problem until last week.

Naturally, the topic dominated discussion at last week’s regular monthly meeting of the Suttons Bay-Bingham Fire and Rescue Authority board.

To keep the Suttons Bay-Bingham Fire and Rescue Department from continuing to run in the red, officials will need to ask taxpayers for more money.

They plan to bring another ballot proposal to voters in the Nov. 6 General Election, asking for an additional 0.8-mills for two years. The current 2.3-mill levy expires in 2020.

The November 2018 ballot language will be prepared by a different attorney and a different law firm than the attorney who prepared the August 2016 ballot language.

Attorney Bryan E. Graham is a principal of the Young, Graham & Wendling law firm in Bellaire. Highly experienced and respected, Graham served as Antrim County Prosecutor before joining the firm in 1996. Graham and his partners are well known as experts in municipal law who work for numerous units of government throughout the region.

In response to an email from a Leelanau Enterprise reporter, Graham said he contacted the Leelanau County Equalization Department from which he obtained taxable values for real and personal property in both townships.

“I typically speak with the equalization director – although my notes do not reflect the identity of the official with whom I spoke,” Graham said.

Leelanau County Equalization Director Laurie Spencer said this week that she never spoke with Graham and does not understand how he arrived at the $1.2 million figure.

“No matter how you calculate the figures the Equalization Department published, you can’t come up with the figure that the attorney advised them to put on the ballot and on which they based their budget,” Spencer said.

Spencer added that she is confident no mistakes were made by anyone in her department or anyone on the board or staff of the Suttons Bay- Bingham Fire & Rescue Authority – and that the error was most likely made by the attorney who provided the ballot language.

“We’re really embarrassed and upset that this happened,” said Suttons Bay-Bingham Fire Chief James Porter. “We’d like to apologize to taxpayers and voters for this mistake and we are taking steps to ensure it never happens again.”

In preparing the November ballot language, the Suttons Bay-Bingham fire board plans to use the services of an Okemos-based law firm that has represented the department and other Leelanau County departments in union contract negotiations. The Fahey-Schultz-Burzych-Rhodes law firm is also highly experienced in other aspects of municipal law.

Fire and Rescue Authority board president Rich Bahle, who also serves as Suttons Bay Township supervisor, said the department is covering its financial obligations for now through a variety of belt-tightening measures which cannot be sustained indefinitely. Honoring union contracts and requirements for equipment replacement will require that the department’s budget be funded as planned over the next two years.

Officials pointed out that in August 2016, voters approved a property tax rate that they understood would raise $1.2 million – even if the 2.3-mill levy cannot accomplish that.

Officials also note that a separate 0.5-mill property tax approved by voters in 2004 to pay for expansion of the fire hall in Suttons Bay is expiring this year now that construction bonds have been paid off – and that tax will disappear.

“We know that residents of Suttons Bay and Bingham Township really appreciate the services we provide and want us to stay in business,” Porter said. “We’re confident they’ll let us do that and hope they will forgive us for the mistake that was made.”

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