2018-07-26 / Local News

Reasons for, against senior millage increase

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

Leelanau County voters will be asked on Aug. 7 whether they want to approve a millage increase to support the county’s Senior Services programs.

Currently, property owners are paying a property tax rate of 0.275 mills to support programs for county residents over the age of 60. That millage rate was approved four years ago and will expire this year.

The county is asking voters to approve a 0.320-mill property tax levy to replace it.

The new tax rate, if approved, would equate to $32 of tax for every $100,000 in property taxable value per year. That represents an increase of $4.50 per year from the current millage rate on property with the same taxable value.

Proponents of the higher millage rate note that the overall population of Leelanau County has not been growing significantly in recent years, but the number of people over the age of 60 is increasing sharply.

Figures from 2010 showed an overall population of about 21,700 people in Leelanau County with about 7,000 of them over the age of 60. That number is expected to increase by more than four-percent each year until 2022 when roughly 11,000 of the county’s 21,700 residents will be senior citizens.

“Within the next three years, it is quite possible that over 50 percent of the population eligible to vote in Leelanau County will be 60 years or older,” according to April Missias, head of the county’s Senior Services Department.

The number of people who have requested services from the department in recent years has increased to the extent that “means testing” was applied for certain services last year that previously would have been provided to anyone. Last year, the county found it necessary to dip into its general fund to stabilize the department’s budget.

Currently, only seniors who meet certain income and asset guidelines are eligible for certain services including personal care, respite care, homemaking, medication management, financial assistance in a variety of categories, and food coupons.

On the other hand, all Leelanau County seniors regardless of income level or assets are eligible for a variety of services and programs including medical transportation, foot care vouchers, loaned medical equipment, tax preparation help, euchre tournaments, social outings, the annual senior expo, and other programs.

The higher millage rate will allow the Senior Services Department to continue offering the programs and services it currently offers and add a few more that will likely become necessary as the senior population increases and continues aging, according to officials.

Not everyone, not even all seniors, think the higher millage rate is appropriate, however.

Gery Zemaitis of Leland is a former officer of the Republican Party of Leelanau County and is advocating a “no” vote on the millage proposal.

“Certainly, we have a lot of older people moving up here to Leelanau County,” Zemaitis said, “but they’re bringing their wealth with them and building all these new homes. We just don’t have the need in Leelanau County that may be present elsewhere.”

Zemaitis said he wonders why so many of those who were receiving services before “means-testing” was applied to certain programs last year simply dropped out of the programs.

“I also question how much of the money is covering personnel costs in the Senior Services department and how many more people they will hire with the extra millage money,” Zemaitis added.

The former Republican chair of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners, Mary Tonneberger of Omena, is a supporter of the higher Senior Services millage.

“Leelanau County is at the forefront of a rapidly aging population,” Tonneberger said. “It’s important that Senior Services is able to address the challenges ahead.”

She said that one of the most important functions of the department is coordinating services to support “aging well in Leelanau” which allows people to remain in their homes, have a healthy lifestyle, and be part of a vibrant community.

“That is why I support a modest increase in our millage rate,” Tonneberger said. “As one of Leelanau County’s representatives to the Area Agency on Aging, I know the needs are widespread and complex.”

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