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Election: Flint voters to decide big property tax increase

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Flint voters face a tough choice on Election Day.

Agree to a big property tax increase…or face even more cuts to the city’s overburdened police and fire departments.

On November Sixth, Flint voters will decide if they are willing to pay an additional 6 mills on their property taxes or about 79 dollars extra a year for the average home owner.    

Supporters say about five million dollars would be raised for police and fire protection.

Flint set a record for homicides two years ago.     And could do it again this year.   Flint’s arson rate has exploded as well.

Recently, I came across a small crowd watching firefighters hose down a burning vacant home on Flint’s north side.    Everyone agreed it was another arson.   They also agreed Flint’s police officers and firefighters need help.  But no one watching the fire was willing to pay more taxes.

“How you going to raise the taxes up…can’t nobody can pay the taxes they already got?  They barely making ends meet with the money that they do make…and they raise the taxes up that’s gonna make it even worse than it already is," said a woman who declined to give her name.

Alvern Lock oversees Flint’s police and fire departments.   He says the city needs the money to pay for public safety. 

Lock says he’s confident the money will be enough to replace expiring federal grant funding that’s paying for dozens of police officers and firefighters.   For example, Flint will have to lay off 39 firefighters when the federal SAFER grant expires in 2014.

“If it passes that enhances what we have the ability to do right now," says Lock,  "That means more police officers.  More firefighters. …maybe just maintaining firefighters.   As opposed to the end of the SAFER grant laying those officers off.”

Lock says Flint needs 200 police officers.  But the city only has 121 officers right now.  And if the millage doesn’t pass, that number could drop to about a hundred.

However, the public safety argument is not convincing to everyone. 

Scott Kincaid is the president of the Flint City Council.   He opposes the proposed property tax increase.  Kincaid says Flint’s residents have already seen their city-controlled water and sewer rates skyrocket under two emergency managers.    He says they can’t afford another tax increase. 

Kincaid says his constituents need a plan to improve property values.

“You’ve got to sustain a program that will start to prevent property values from going down….bring quality of life issues back into the neighborhoods…so that residents will want to live here…send their kids to school here…and not just tax’em," says Kincaid. 

While the public safety situation in Flint is far more dire than most other Michigan cities, it’s not unique.

Civic leaders in Grand Rapids and Lansing, for example, have convinced voters recently to increase taxes to pay for public safety.  

"I find it just so fascinating," says Samantha Harkins with the Michigan Municipal League, "that residents have shown…not quite at the six mil level….that’s a very large millage…residents have shown that these services are important to them….and they will pay what they need to keep them…so we will see if they are willing to pay that much.  It will be interesting.”

Public Safety chief Alvern Lock says the job of protecting Flint’s residents will remain the same whether the millage passes on election day or not.

“We have no choice," says Lock, "There’s no one coming to say ‘we’re here to take this on for you’…we have no choice.”

Flint voters will make their choice November sixth.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.