News Story

Anatomy of How to Kill a Tax Hike

For the past few decades, Lansing resident John Pollard has spearheaded groups fighting against millage hikes for schools, libraries, transit and general funds. He finally decided to incorporate his efforts into one all-encompassing group: the “No More Taxes Committee.” “I was pre-tea party,” Pollard said.

“I believe in open, honest, transparent government loyal to the people. And if [the city] is asking for more money, but not being loyal to that, I get out and urge people to vote ‘no.’”

Pollard got active early this year when the City of Lansing asked voters last Tuesday for a 4-mill increase on property taxes expected to raise $8.5 million. The property tax hike was narrowly defeated — by about 600 votes.

The proposal would also have raised the cap on the city’s taxing authority set by the 1978 Headlee Amendment in the state constitution, which caps property taxes. Pollard says his group was out on the streets talking to people and putting up bright red “Vote NO” signs around town. He says all he had to do to get voters to change their minds was show them how confusing the ballot language actually was. He doesn’t feel the city is being honest with how they would use the new money.

“They sell this as ‘essential services,’ and then they decide what essential and necessary services are,” Pollard said. “What they call essential, I don’t call essential at all.”

“This is [supposed to be] going for police and fire. Well, how much for police? How much for fire?”

Jack McHugh, a legislative analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said using public safety millages is often like trying to make someone pay extra for an engine after they've bought a car.

“When residents pay local property tax payments, they have a right to expect the core government services of fire and police will be the first things funded,” McHugh said. “People don't understand that public safety ‘enhancement’ millage money goes into the same pot that pays for much lower priority ‘extras’ that happen to be politically useful to municipal officials. So in the end, these ‘public safety’ millages are about preserving those low priority items, which is why they indicate bad faith by local politicians.”

According to the Lansing-based political newsletter MIRS Capitol Capsule (subscription required), Lansing's was one of only a few major millages to be defeated. While the most notable to go down were in Lansing and Garden City, rejection was not the norm across the state. Grand Rapids, Southfield, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Madison Heights, Clawson, Sumpter Township, Flint, Saginaw County, Birch Run, North Muskegon, a variety of school districts, and many other local government units all passed tax hikes. Statewide, most millages passed by only a few percentage points.

But Pollard believes a little effort can go a long way. He said he concentrated on absentee voters, who were credited with taking down the tax hike. “All we did was go out and show people what the ballot language actually was,” he said. “After people saw it overriding Headlee, and read the fine print, they turned against it.”

With the failure of the millage, the $20 million city deficit is expected to be closed mostly by eliminating police and fire positions. But Pollard points out that though the cities of Ann Arbor and Lansing have nearly identical populations, Lansing has many more police and fire employees and spends a lot more money on them. According to the city, Ann Arbor has 124 sworn police officers and 89 firefighters. Lansing has 326 police employees, in which about 219 are sworn officers, and 225 fire department employees. The cuts are expected to bring Lansing down to 248 police employees and 154 fire employees.

Pollard believes that municipal governments should clearly explain to people why they need more funds. “I’m not interested in semantics,” he said. “Tell us what you’re doing with the money.”

“And if people don’t understand, they should vote ‘No.’ Just like they would on a contract or any other important document.”

The Lansing mayor and city council members did not return requests for comment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.