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Posted on Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 5:58 a.m.

Road millage won't be added in 2012 - but Washtenaw County officials consider broader tax hike

By Ryan J. Stanton

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners unanimously rejected a proposed tax increase for road improvements Wednesday night, citing a bad economy as the reason.

But later in a lengthy report to the board, Chairman Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor, suggested commissioners give serious thought to the idea of a tax increase in 2012.

Not just for road improvements, he said, but perhaps services such as housing, police protection and community health.

"We all know you can only cut so far, and I think there are those in county government right now who would argue that we have cut to the bone," he said. "It's not a sustainable approach. We can't continue the downward spiral and expect to emerge a prosperous community."


Conan Smith

If the county were to go to voters with a revenue question, Smith said, the filing deadlines are Feb. 14 to go on the May ballot, May 29 to go on the August ballot and Aug. 28 to go on the November ballot, so the county would need to act relatively quickly.

Smith said a half-mill tax increase could raise $7 million to $8 million in new county revenues, and that would cost the average homeowner about $45.70 per year.

"I'd like us to begin immediately in January with a conversation about the focus, the rates and the logistical considerations of a millage, and then work in February and March to craft a proposal for the board's approval or rejection," he said. "Obviously, once it's on the ballot, if we're the ones who put it there, we do have an important role in supporting a campaign."

The 0.6-mill tax commissioners rejected Wednesday night would have raised an estimated $8.7 million for additional road projects in the county.

It was proposed by the Road Commission under a 1909 law that had not been used in the county in more than four decades. Under the law, the county board could approve the tax increase without voter approval, similar to other millages it has approved in recent years.

Given the continued poor economic climate in the county and throughout Michigan, the board rejected the Road Commission's request, but Smith said that's not necessarily the end of it.

"It's only the end of it for this year," he said. "By statute, the Road Commission submits a plan to the board of commissioners every year."

Smith said commissioners are planning to hold a working session meeting in early 2012 to talk about possibly raising taxes, and funding for roads likely will be a part of that discussion.

"I don't think anyone should look at this as just a disregard for the state of the roads in Washtenaw County," he said of Wednesday's vote against the tax. "The entire question of revenue is larger and more complex, and if we're ever going to increase the taxes on the citizenry, we need a more holistic conversation about what that's going to be for."

Smith's call for a tax increase came during a broader presentation on the structural challenges facing Washtenaw County.

His report touched on poverty, education gaps, unemployment, mental health issues, declining tax revenues, increasing labor costs, long-term obligations like retiree health care, and declining state and federal aid.

He's calling for the board to work in 2012 on a strategic policy framework to tackle those problems, and raising new revenue is just one option. Other options include continuing to cut services, which Smith argued isn't a sustainable approach, and improving the tax base by focusing on economic opportunities and quality of life.

"We've talked about a number of different things we might ask the voters for," Smith said. "One is a Headlee override. We're about nine-tenths of a mill under what our ability to tax is statutorily, but we have to ask the voters to override that decline."

That could bring in another $13 million or $14 million a year, he said.

Smith received positive feedback from fellow commissioners, though there's no clear consensus yet on where the board stands.

Smith said he'd like to kick off discussions with a half-day retreat in January with all of the county's elected officials and other top administrators.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's e-mail newsletters.



Sat, Dec 10, 2011 : 3:46 a.m.

Why is it that only property owners must pay for the maintenance of our roads? What about the renters? Did you know that Ann Arbor is about 40% tax free or closer to 50%. That means that the property owner supports twice as much as any other community with millage, A TOTALLY UNFAIR TAX. Did you know that the students can vote for the millage and many of them do not pay any millage tax. The renters pay only about 17% of the tax. There has to be a better way. I would like to see an accounting of the funds that the city and the county collect and how they spend that money. With todays computer systems it is easily done. What are they hiding? I guess people in power think that we a cannot understand why money is spent the way it is. Why should our homes be in danger of being confiscated by the government because a person has lost their job and cannot pay their property taxes? Or a person falls ill and has hospital bills that must be paid. A bank will negotiate but there is NO negotiating with the property tax collector. THERE HAS TO BE A BETTER WAY TO RAISE THE NECESSARY FUNDS OTHER THEN PROPERTY TAXES.

Alan Goldsmith

Fri, Dec 9, 2011 : 11:21 a.m.

"I (think) the "Headlee override" tax incease is a good idea. It should go on the November, 2012 ballot so that the largest possible number of voters will likely vote." Great idea! Better yet maybe a blurb after each candidate on the ballot who supports the tax increase. Lol. And maybe a ballot initiative requesting the County take action against elected officials who refused to pay back funding they took inappropriately too? Let's vote!


Fri, Dec 9, 2011 : 5:43 a.m.

Who died and made Conan Smith dictator of the County? First his pointless and egotistical shenangians and gamesmanship with the Humane Society... And now messing with the roads. I guess we can expect as much from someone who's "family has made local politics a profession"... Voters need to check this guy...and fast.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 9:21 p.m.

Conan Smith is looking for more of other people's money to hand out to his pet human service projects.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 5:49 p.m.

Seems strange that we are one of the higher taxed areas in Michigan, but our leaders can not seem to even do the basics (roads, fire, police) without forever wanting more money. Where exactly is the money going??? Doesn't seem likely it is going to the proper priorities does it?

David Cahill

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 4:58 p.m.

I the "Headlee override" tax incease is a good idea. It should go on the November, 2012 ballot so that the largest possible number of voters will likely vote.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 4:32 p.m.

We are told by the road commission we need $8 million or the roads will fall apart. Then we are told by the County Commissioners we need the money not for roads but for what probably is the commissioners pet projects. It appear roads are not really a priority of the County. Their priority seems to be raising taxes so they can peddle their influence.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 3:26 p.m.

The same nice people who are rooking our Humane Society of contractual monies. Snuff a kitten! Vote for Conan Smith!

G. Orwell

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 2:25 p.m.

Can't these people come up with better ideas than to raise taxes or make cuts? There has to be other options. Anyone on the board with any creativity and resourcefulness?


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 2:08 p.m.

If this group cites a bad economy as a reason they will not raise taxes for roads, what is everybody in Washtenaw County upset about when the Republicans try to save the taxpayers more money by reducing partner benefits?


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:51 p.m.

I would like to see some coverage of what the Board has decided to do about the contract with HSHV and for the handling of stray and abandoned and those who are victims of cruelty. I have read the RFP, which indicates the county will only deal with stray dogs. Nothing for cats or other animals. They will provide for care for 5-7 days then the agency with the RFP will either pay for their total care or euthanize them. If anyone accepts that RFP, they will only be a slaughterhouse for stray dogs.

zip the cat

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:23 p.m.

I still see total waste of taxpayers money every day in regards to the road commission. 5 guys standing watching a machine clean out the ditches on joy rd the other day. They were not doing any work,the machine was, what a joke. I still see all the so called big shooters driving county pickups home every night at taxpayers expense. There shoddy road work is evident by the repair job they did on the drain culvert on Huron River Dr south of gregory road. on and on and on.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:05 p.m.

"But later in a lengthy report to the board, Chairman Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor, suggested commissioners give serious thought to the idea of a tax increase in 2012. " Just say no! Maybe Ann Arbor is doing fine but that doesn't mean the rest of Washtenaw County is. The value of my home hasn't "recovered". Maybe an outside auditor is needed to see whether costs have been "cut to the bone".


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:03 p.m. could you answer some questions about a Headlee override? The county talks about it and the city talks about it. At what level of government could/would something like that happen?


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 2:41 p.m.

Every unit of government that collects property taxes has to dial down the tax rate if property value grows at more than a certain rate--so over time, your effective property tax rate automatically goes down. This process is known as a "Headlee rollback". However, any taxing unit (the city, the county, the library district, etc) may ask the voters to approve a "Headlee override", to restore the originally approved rate. So, If we go vote for 1 mill now, and five years from now property values have risen faster than inflation, so that a "Headlee rollback" has pushed the tax rate down to 0.9 mills, then the taxing body can come back and ask us to vote to say, "No, really--we said 1 mill and we meant it."

Alan Goldsmith

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 11:43 a.m.

"But later in a lengthy report to the board, Chairman Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor, suggested commissioners give serious thought to the idea of a tax increase in 2012." But before a 'tax increase' Mr. Smith, how about paying back the money YOU owe the County? Your lack of leadership is appalling.

Les Gov

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 11:38 a.m.

I've lost count. How many tax increases of the Washtenaw County officials approved over the last several years? There was that tax hike to found the charities that never went before the voters (what did they call that?) There was another tax increase that never went to the voters for a vote (again I can't recall the name of it right now...) and of course the funds that an Auditor determined that some of the Washtenaw County officials have taken from the county that they are not entitled to. Now another increase. Doesn't it seem like the Washtenaw County officials use our tax dollars as their own piggy bank? No wonder Conan Smith (who has refused to pay back the County for the improper reimbursements he took) is smiling. He is laughing at every one of us tax payers.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 11:33 a.m.

Couldn't the millage be cutoff Mr. Smith repaid the money he owed us? Will he payfor this retreat?


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 11:17 a.m.

I was impressed to hear what is happening already in Macomb County since they created a County Executive position.....things sound so positive there. Listening to their county exec this morning I thought how lucky the residents of Macomb are to have a leader. Washtenaw continues to flounder, with no solid leadership, no solid plans. What is OUR 5 year plan? What is OUR ten year plan? Gees, we can't seem to get a ONE year plan. Leadership. We need a county executive !!! We need one leader pulling for the entire county.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:53 p.m.

You're assuming we all want to go in the same direction. Given the sheer fiscal incompetence and lack of ethics of most Ann Arbor politicians I certainly don't need more garbage from them at a county exectutive level. If that happened they could divert more millage money at the county level to "art" and similar boondoggles. That 1909 law needs to be repealed too.