December 22, 2011 PLYMOUTH EAGLE.
Plymouth Township residents will have the opportunity in February to vote on the question of paying a special millage to fund the fire department, although the ballot language is far from that sought by the Citizens Action Group.
The board vote to approve the contested language came at a packed town hall meeting Monday night, scheduled by order of Circuit Court Judge Wendy Baxter, who ruled that the board must accept and honor the petition signatures of more than 4,000 residents who asked for a vote on the question.
Earlier Monday, Township Supervisor Richard Reaume and township attorney Timothy Cronin failed to appear at a hearing in the courtroom of Circuit Court Judge Gershwin Drain to answer and show cause for their assumed authority to control the ballot language. The court waited for more than an hour after the court clerk summoned the pair to immediately appear. When Cronin addressed the court he apologized for being “late”.
Citizens Action Group of Plymouth, a grass roots assembly of firefighters and citizens, were represented by Marvin Stempien, a retired Circuit Court judge and 27 year township resident. Stempien argued before Drain in seeking
injunctive relief, “Where is the authority to change the (ballot) wording? It’s a question of law,” he continued. “To encourage a negative vote, the Plymouth Township Board has changed the question from 1 mill to 10 mills…the burden of proof is on the Plymouth Township Board to show it has the authority. Their position…is contrary to the Michigan Constitution, Act 1, Section 3,” he argued.
Drain declined ruling on the case, saying, “Injunctive relief is an extraordinary measure”, and agreed with Stempien, stating there is no known precedent, at least in Michigan, or evidence of the exceptional stance of the township to resist the will of the electorate, leaving a possible remedy to an appellate court.
Cronin opened the Monday night meeting by stating that the ballot language had to be changed.
“It’s mandatory,” he said, “The process is different here… most residents would be familiar with a project, like roads or street- lights, but this is not a project, it’s a service”.
Jeff Hefferman, an auditor from Plante Moran was asked to explain the effect of the proposed millage question to the average homeowner. Hefferman, with a slide presentation, estimated the township would have to assess 2.44 mills to balance the budget.
“A typical homeowner with a $220,000 home with a taxable value of $110,000 would pay an additional $268 per year should the millage be approved,” he said.
Stempien, who spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting, called the 2.44 mill estimate “outrageous”.
“I don’t understand why you are talking about a budget that would require 2.44 mills,” he challenged.
“One mill would raise, $1.6 million dollars and the firefighters have repeatedly stated they need to transport, rather than call in an ambulance company, and that would produce $700,000.
“If you’re really serious about compromise you need to find a way to have 24-hour, seven- day a week EMS service with paramedics, and 24-hour, seven-day a week fire protection with full-time fire fighters…telling us you have to raise our taxes by 2.44 mills, that is outrageous,” Stempien said.
Trustee Steve Mann offered a motion authorizing the question of a 10 mill assessment and further costs as determined by the board, but not before admonishing the Citizens Action Group effort to bring the issue to a referendum, as “frivolous,” which agitated Stempien.
After Reaume closed the public comments and the board voted unanimously to approve the ballot language, Stempien, stepped to the podium and addressed Mann, a recent law school graduate.
“As a member of the bar, don’t ever say an attorney’s actions are frivolous. You learned in law school about the constitution, and I will forever protect the rights of citizens and the constitution,” Stempien said.
The Citizens Action Group of Plymouth had been beseeching the members of the township board to allow the residents to vote on a 1-mill, five-year assessment to fund the fire department which is being systematically reduced by cost cutting measures. The fire department budget will lose an estimated $900,000 when the City of Plymouth leaves the joint fire department service in January. The city will now on Northville for fire protection services and the township will no longer receive fees from the city.