News Story

You Can't Do That: Township's Taxpayer-Funded Tax Hike Electioneering

Expert says the law means what it says on this one

A flier distributed by a Saginaw County township to residents advocating a “yes” vote on a millage question likely violates state campaign finance law. Despite what the Maple Grove Township officials claim is an error in the text, the flier is still illegal, according to one long-time Michigan expert on such issues.

The flier states that the Maple Grove Fire Department asks for a “yes” vote in November on a three-year property tax millage that would cost the average household $84 per year per household for three years. The millage would give the department $252,000.

Cheryl Bishop, the township treasurer, said the flier includes a misstatement and should have read “special assessment” rather than “millage.”

“When we sent the flier to residents we printed the word millage in error,” Bishop said in an email. “It should have read Special Assessment. We had consulted an attorney about the wording but the error was not caught before the mass mailing. We have the correct wording on the ballot proposal for November.”

Bishop did not respond to follow-up questions regarding the legality of the flier.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Act states that public bodies must remain neutral during elections. But the flier, sent to residents in the mail along with property tax notices, unambiguously advocates for residents to vote “yes” on a ballot measure.

“We as a department are asking for your ‘YES’ vote for a 3-year millage that would allow us to replace our outdated 1980 Chevrolet Mini Pumper,” the flier states. The flier shows pictures of the truck in use now and the proposed truck that would be purchased.

Click here to see the flier.

The fire department also said on the flier that the pump apparatus of the truck is nearing the end of its use and is increasingly expensive to repair.

Bob LaBrant, a Michigan attorney who for decades has specialized in campaign finance law, said the expressed advocacy of the flier makes it illegal under state law.

“Express advocacy (vote yes) is what makes this flier in violation of section 57 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, not the terms ‘millage’ or ‘assessment,’” he said. “Section 57 spells out what the penalties are for a violation of section 57.”

Dave Gillie, a township resident, said he received the flier in the mail sealed in the same envelope as his property taxes.

“When I saw it was actually advocating a ‘yes’ vote I was quite shocked,” he said. “It wasn’t that I disagreed with the information that they put on there.”

“It actually advocated a ‘yes’ vote using our tax dollars, which is why I had a problem with it,” he said. Gillie said he received the flier on June 28.

There are many examples of local governments distributing information that is highly favorable to tax increase proposals, but as long as they don’t expressly ask for a “yes” or “no” vote on a measure, they do not violate current state law. For example, last year the city of Rochester Hills wanted to raise property taxes for police and fire budgets, so it implied a vote on the matter was a life-or-death situation. In 2014, the Pinckney school superintendent asked voters to renew a multi-million dollar millage.

In January, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill that restricted local governments from using taxpayer dollars to advocate for tax increases within 60 days of an election. Days later, a judge granted an injunction blocking the law.

Editor's note: Maple Grove Township is in Saginaw County. The original story had the wrong county.