While Grand Rapids city commissioners have placed a property tax millage request for the park system on the November ballot, Kent County commissioners are debating whether to take similar action next year on behalf of military veterans.
At its last meeting, the county Finance Committee decided to send the matter of whether the county should go forward with a dedicated millage to fund the county’s Department of Veterans Affairs to its millage subcommittee, chaired by Commissioner Dick Vander Molen.
If the subcommittee determines a ballot proposal is the proper way to fund the department, that recommendation will come back to the Finance Committee, which is chaired by Commissioner Harold Voorhees, for a vote. Then the committee will decide whether or not to recommend a millage to the full commission.
“Both recommendations will be voted on,” said County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio.
Voorhees said the subcommittee’s decision is expected by the end of this year.
This funding discussion was fueled by an earlier report that showed the county’s financial support for veterans is among the lowest in the state at just $8 per veteran annually. Kent County has roughly 35,000 veterans and the number is expected to grow in the coming years.
The same report suggested increasing the county’s general fund support for the department and also recommended going forward with a millage request. Commissioners have agreed to allocate another $50,000 from general operations to the department, which will bring next year’s funding to $350,000.
The millage the report recommended called for an increase of .05 mills, which would generate up to $1 million a year for veterans’ affairs. The increase has been estimated as costing the owner of a $200,000 home about $5 each year.
“Most citizens would gladly pay $5 a year in additional taxes to support veterans,” said Commissioner Jim Talen.
Another millage that has been discussed involves a request for .025 mills, and if voters approve it, it would generate about $500,000 a year for the department.
There are other funding methods that don’t require a vote. One is for the county to levy its state-authorized maximum property-tax rate of 4.32 mills. Doing that would raise the levy by .0397 mills and another $770,000 for the general fund. Commissioners could allocate those new dollars to veterans support.
A second funding method is enacting a state law that gives commissioners the authority to set a levy of 0.10 mills to fund the department, an option that would raise about $2 million annually. Assistant County Administrator Wayman Britt said this revenue could only be spent on indigent veterans,.
“But some commissioners are uncomfortable increasing taxes without a special citizen vote,” said Talen. “(But) citizens elect commissioners to make difficult decisions themselves, not bring all difficult funding questions back to the voters.”
Talen also pointed out that going forward with a millage would require an expensive campaign to get it approved by voters. He cited one in the 1990s to put a new county courthouse on Monroe Center, where the Grand Rapids Art Museum currently stands, as a costly effort that failed at the ballot box. A few years later, the county built the courthouse at Ottawa Avenue and Lyon Street NW and did so without a millage. Talen felt the county should go the same route for veterans and bypass a millage request.
“The commission should levy an additional millage, as is needed and within the law, to fund the gradual expansion of services to veterans,” he said.
“Increased services to veterans will leverage income for them from the federal government. Most of that income will be spent in Kent County, giving this issue a significant economic development side that benefits everyone in the county,” added Talen.
The county has two dedicated millages. One is for the jail; the other is for senior services. The senior services millage could very well be on the ballot next year for an increase or a renewal.
The city is putting a millage request of 0.98 mills for seven years before voters Nov. 5. If passed, it would generate about $4 million annually for the city’s parks, playgrounds and swimming pools. The commission went forward with the request because it concluded the park system is not sustainable under the current funding method.
According to a report from the National Recreation and Parks Association, 91 percent of the city’s parks are rated at a “C” level of maintenance, which is the group’s lowest acceptable standard. Without any additional funding, half of the system would fall to a “D” grade. The city would invest up to 55 percent of the millage revenue into repairs, maintenance and the rehabilitation of park equipment and buildings. The rest would go to new equipment and facilities and to keep the swimming pools open longer.
An approved millage would cost the typical homeowner in the city $44 a year. The average taxable value of a home in Grand Rapids is $44,592. City commissioners are expected to establish the guidelines on how the millage revenue will be spent this week. The city owns 73 parks on 1,210 acres of land.