Washtenaw County looks to renew taxes for veterans relief, agriculture and economic development
The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners gave initial approval Wednesday night to renew two county taxes — an agriculture and economic development millage expected to raise $688,913 next year and a veterans relief millage expected to raise $344,486.
Both were approved in committee and await final approval on Sept. 21. The veterans relief millage passed 10-0 with Commissioner Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti Township, absent.
The agriculture and economic development levy — more commonly known as an Act 88 millage — passed 7-3 with dissent from Commissioners Dan Smith, R-Northfield Township; Alicia Ping, R-Saline; and Wesley Prater, D-York Township.
The board has taken advantage of that law and approved the millage each year since 2009.
Funds from the 0.05-mill tax to be levied this December would be used during calendar year 2012 to fund several agencies:
- $230,000 for economic activities provided by Ann Arbor SPARK, and $50,000 for SPARK East, a nonprofit organization committed to marketing business opportunities within Washtenaw County
- $100,000 for the economic development activities of the Eastern Leaders Group
- $131,149 to fund activities of the Washtenaw County Department of Economic Development and Energy
- $15,000 for 4-H activities, which include an allocation to the Washtenaw Farm Council for operating the Washtenaw County 4-H Youth Show
- $82,500 to operate the MSU Extension 4-H Program
- $15,000 to support the work of the Food System Economic Partnership to improve the viability of the regional food and agricultural system by helping farmers, entrepreneurs and businesses improve their marketing systems and create economic development opportunities
- $65,264 to promote Heritage Tourism in Washtenaw County
County Administrator Verna McDaniel said in a memo to the board that the $603,000 spent on those programs last year allowed the county to leverage another $7 million.
- Download a report on the millage's performance to date.
County officials decided to implement an Act 88 millage for the first time in late 2009, using the funds to help offset money from the county’s struggling general fund that had in previous years funded agriculture and economic development initiatives.
McDaniel said the Act 88 millage can be approved by the board without a vote of the people because it predates the state's Headlee Amendment by 65 years.
Similarly, the county board is authorized to levy the veterans relief millage without a vote of the people under a state law dating back to 1899.
The $344,486 in revenue from the 0.025-mill veterans relief tax to be levied in December would be used in calendar year 2012 to provide relief for honorably discharged indigent members of the armed forces and their spouses, minor children and parents.
The millage rate is the same as previous years, but it's estimated to collect about $11,000 less due to projected decreases in property values.
Ping said she voted against the Act 88 millage because the Farm Bureau at both the state and the county levels opposed it. She said a significant amount of her district is made up of farmers, and the Farm Bureau represent their interests, so she felt she should follow suit.
Clarifying why he voted for the veterans millage, Prater pointed out the state law actually reads that “each county shall annually levy" a tax for veterans relief.
Smith's reasons for voting against the Act 88 millage were similar to Prater's.
"The voters have come to think over the years, rightly or wrongly, all technicalities aside, that they get to vote on taxes," he said.
Several members of the public spoke in favor of the Act 88 millage during a public hearing Wednesday night, including representatives of the Eastern Leaders Group, SPARK, the city of Ypsilanti, the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority and others.
"We believe that Washtenaw County can and should utilize the funding source made available through Act 88 to further economic development within the county, especially through organizations such as SPARK," Diane Keller, president and CEO of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement to commissioners.
Keller added state Act 88 is in need of revision to provide greater clarity on what types of initiatives and organizations it should fund. She encouraged the county to revise its guidelines for the appropriation process for Act 88 funding to provide more transparency.
The Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution recently calling the Act 88 millage revenue vital to local efforts to promote economic development.
The 0.05 mills expected to be levied this year is actually a slight increase from the previous 0.043-mill levy, which the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority noted in a resolution of support is less than a tenth of the amount allowed under state law.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's e-mail newsletters.