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Special assessment draws unhappy crowd in Gladstone

R.R. Branstrom Daily Press This week’s Gladstone Commission meeting drew a crowd of unhappy residents. They voiced their displeasure over the approval of a special assessment levy that will increase summer taxes by 2 mills and winter taxes by 2.5 mills.

RGLADSTONE — The Gladstone City Commission approved a resolution for a special assessment levy to fund the Public Safety and Volunteer Fire Departments Monday. Residents will see the impact in the form of 2 mills on their summer tax bill and 2.5 mills in the winter — and some are not happy.

After stating that he had already been charged special assessments for downtown and Minneapolis Avenue — neither of which he lives on — “you can’t just always do this. You have to budget,” said resident James Dekeyser. “You have to make your plans and live by your plans and live by your budget. We all have to do that.”

Specific suggestions were made during the hearing and public comment:

“When I’m in trouble for money, I need to sell things to do whatever I need to do to pay my bills,” said Jeff Rydahl, and mentioned a particular piece of city-owned “prime real estate” on the lakefront behind the police station. “Why don’t we put that beautiful piece of land up for real estate auction, spur some economic development, create some more tax base, and use the funds of that land sale to buy your fire truck?”

Commissioner Brad Mantela said that the plot is on the market, and the city is actively looking to increase their tax base; a new industrial park is in the works.

Others expressed concern about whether they could be sure the money would actually go towards police and fire needs.

“There will be four committed savings accounts within a restricted fund for public safety,” said City Manager Eric Buckman. “A portion of each year’s millage will be budgeted for public safety operations. The committed funds would be a fire truck, fire equipment, police cruiser, and police equipment.”

The action is being taken in accordance with Public Act 33. While the rate is set at 4.5 mills for the first year and estimated to accrue $564,232 in 2024, the needs would be reevaluated and a different rate set each year.

Some people view the resolution as alarming, calling it a “blank check.” Almost everyone who spoke out in protest said that they were not opposed to funding police and fire — just the way in which the city was going about collecting it. Many said they would have voted for a millage if given the option. But they also had other ideas, such as loans, grants, leasing to buy, and shared services.

Regarding a vote, c ommissioners had two main arguments. One — if the ballot failed, the city would still be in a position of need. Two — a voted-in millage would be set in place for several years, whereas if the Act 33 route is taken, the millage rate could be lowered if grant money comes in in the meantime.

On grants:

“I apply for as many grants as I can,” said Public Safety Director Ron Robinson. “I’ve been successful every five years and getting grants for bulletproof proof vests. Does that pay for all of them? No, it pays for about 50%.”

At a previous meeting, Commissioner Robert Pontius pointed out that grants are not “free money” and often come with strings — even if approved, some require matches, and whether successful or not, simply applying takes a lot of time and effort, meaning that somebody would have to be paid to do that job with no guarantee of return.

On loans:

“Setting up restricted funds that earn interest is a better way of spending the citizens’ money than borrowing and paying interest,” Buckman said.

On shared services:

“We do share services,” said Robinson. “I’m very proud of the relationship we have with (Michigan State Police), Delta County, all the fire departments. We do have an automatic aid with Escanaba Township. What that means is, when we get a structure fire in Gladstone, they come assist us; when they get a fire in Escanaba Township, we respond and assist them.

“We’re part of an ice rescue team for Delta County. That means our officers and volunteers respond to ice rescues out on Little Bay de Noc. We’ve saved several lives because of that.

“Again, we have a very good relationship with everybody. But you also need to realize that even though the Sheriff Department and MSP may come and assist us, when there’s only one PSO on, we also assist. There’s plenty of times when the (county or state police) will call and say, ‘hey, we’re tied up, we’re down in Garden, can you please go check that call for us outside the city?’ We do that.”

On whether more staff was necessary, Robinson said that a substantial number of officers from Gladstone have left the force because they didn’t like working without a partner or the pay wasn’t competitive enough.

COVID funding was another thing people asked about. They were told that money is not available.

“During COVID, public safety received $116,821. That was for overtime and hazard pay,” said Buckman, adding that other COVID funds went to the Department of Public Works, Water and Wastewater for storm sewers and new meters.

“There’s $123,174 remaining, and the plan was — is currently — to use that for maintenance and upkeep for city hall. If you look at the outside, the bricks on the front — we’ve been doing a portion every year,” Buckman continued. “We also have a portion of city hall that we have to do lead abatement with… Our back fire garage needs quite a bit of work.”

One resident who was already angry about the “lack of fiscal responsibility” shown by the city, calling the items to be purchased a “wish list,” was driven even more furious upon seeing how many color-printed packets were being distributed seemingly without thought to the cost, and said so during the hearing. Later in the meeting, he ended up storming out.

Ultimately, some citizens left Monday’s meeting feeling unheard and upset. One called it a “waste of time.”

“This decision was already made and this was just a formality to get public comment,” one woman complained.

“At what point does our opinion matter?” asked another.

The protests did hold weight, though — at least to one ear.

At the very end of the meeting, Pontius addressed his fellow commission members — Brad Mantela, Judy Akkala, Mayor Joe Thompson, and Manager Eric Buckman — to propose that they consider a permanent millage increase and get rid of special assessments.

“The impression I got from the comments here is people hate special assessments. They love law enforcement, but they hate a special assessment for it,” Pontius said. “People who are out there protesting special assessments would support a millage increase to create a road fund so that there is that pot of money to use for repairing roads annually. And, we heard here, newly popular is the idea of having a permanent millage to fund law enforcement. So we might want to test that by putting two millages on the ballot.”

The suggestion was made as a closing remark as something to be explored moving forward; no further discussion has yet been had in response.

In other business, the Commission:

– decided to enter into a one-year contract with Orange Cat Media for digital marketing services.

– agreed upon the consent agenda and regular payment of bills, plus one of $24,524 to Bell Lumber and Pole for electric pole replacements.

– gave the go-ahead for Director of Public Works Barry Lund to apply for a Michigan Transportation Economic Fund category B Grant, which is to be used for preventative maintenance.

– disbursed funds for the upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant, where Rodney Schwartz said the secondary digester had been put online.

– set new utility rates and fees, which will become effective Aug. 1.

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