TRAVERSE CITY — Northwestern Michigan College board members decided months ago to put a .4-mil request before county voters in August, a single-item, special election that’s expected to cost taxpayers about $70,000.
College trustees at the time said they chose an off-year, non-primary August election date — typically a time of light voter turnout — because they wanted to make sure there was enough time for an approved higher property tax rate to take effect this year.
But NMC College President Tim Nelson learned just after the NMC board’s April vote to secure the Aug. 6 election date that the same winter taxation goal could be achieved in November, information he failed to share with board members.
The timing matters because the August special election will cost NMC — and by extension taxpayers and students — about $70,000. If NMC had opted for the November ballot, there would have been no extra cost.
NMC Board Trustee Bob Brick said he doesn’t recall hearing a November vote could have made the winter tax rolls, but he still supports the August election, in part, because it puts NMC’s tax increase request before millage votes sought by other local governments. Traverse City Area Public Schools officials will have two bond requests on the November ballot, and the Grand Traverse County Road Commission likely will ask taxpayers for a winter maintenance millage.
“I liked the thought it would become forefront in the election, a stand-alone instead of merged in with other potential concerns,” Brick said.
August and other off-cycle or non-primary elections typically have much lower voter turnouts than November elections, said Grand Traverse County Clerk Bonnie Scheele.
In May 2003, for example, 17.7 percent of Grand Traverse County’s registered voters turned out for a 911 surcharge request, and 20.7 percent of registered voters turned out for a BATA special election that July. Those numbers compare to a 32.7 percent turnout in November for a city general election, said Sarah Lutz, the county’s chief deputy clerk.
NMC ‘more timely’ than TCAPS
NMC board members approved the August date at an April 22 meeting. At the time, TCAPS was in the throes of formulating a scaled-down millage proposal. School officials were stung by the resounding defeat last November of a $100 million bond request and had reached out to the community to help come up with a new plan.
But before the school district could announce its new request, NMC’s board voted 5-1 to put its own .4-mil, 15-year request before voters on Aug. 6. The request would restore the college’s operating millage to the 2.5742 level approved back in 1995. The rate, reduced by the Headlee amendment, now stands at 2.1700 mils.
NMC expects to raise an extra $1.7 million this year for college operations if the millage passes.
“We thought then that the public schools would come back with another millage,” Brick said. “ ... We were organized to do this in a more timely way than they were.”
The Grand Traverse Road Commission just threw another hat in the ring. It intends to ask voters for a two-year, 1-mil increase in November for winter maintenance.
The four proposals — if all are approved — would add up to 1.76 mils, costing an owner of a $200,000 home an extra $176 per year.
When NMC board members met in April to discuss the millage election date, they were unsure if the new tax could get collected in time for the Dec. 1 winter property billing and opted for the earlier August date. NMC attorney Charles Judson told the board he didn’t have a clear answer and promised to research the billing question.
NMC Trustee Cheryl Gore Follette cast the single dissenting vote, and said then she was “extremely concerned about timing” because of an August special election’s high cost.
Follette this week defended the board’s April vote and said it was based on information provided to members at the time.
“None of us go out and double-check. We’re not recreating the fact-finding that’s presented to us,” she said.
A few days after the April board meeting, Judson learned a tax increase vote in November could make it to December tax bills. He emailed the information to Vicki Cook, NMC’s vice president of finance and administration. She, in turn, gave the news to Nelson.
Nelson said millage election language was placed on the agenda of the board’s May study session. On Thursday, he told a Record-Eagle reporter he thought the issue had been discussed, but it could have been lost in the budget discussion. After the interview, Nelson said, he examined notes from the study session and talked to all but one NMC board member. He realized, he said, they hadn’t been told that a November vote could still make it on winter tax bills.
“We dropped the ball,” Nelson said. “It should have gone before the board, and I take responsibility for that.”
From here on out, he said, all attorney opinions will be quickly provided to board members.
“We usually do that, and I don’t know why it didn’t happen. This shouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Trustee Kennard Weaver said he doesn’t know if the new information would have changed his vote.
“There were other factors, as well,” to go with an August vote, he said.
NMC Board Chairman Doug Bishop, a key player in promoting the proposed .4-mil request, learned the news of a feasible November election just this week, but still supports the Aug. 6 election.
Bishop said he doesn’t want to risk a rule or regulation delaying the tax change on the winter tax rolls. More importantly, he said, the August date gives the college the opportunity to “distinctly and separately present our issue to the voters” so they can fully understand what NMC seeks.
Nelson also failed to mention the viability of a November vote when he told the Record-Eagle’s editorial board last week that an August election was necessary to get the new tax rate on winter tax rolls.
On Thursday, he said the attorney’s opinion had slipped his mind when he made that statement.
“I hate to say I forgot, but I did. .. It wasn’t in my mind. I can’t tell you why, but it wasn’t.”
Nelson said he expects some people will suspect he intentionally withheld that information.
“If they do, it’s unfortunate for the college, and it’s unfortunate for the community,” Nelson said. “I can’t step back in time like Dr. Who and change it. This was not intentional, but I can understand how some people might think it is.”
November ‘feasible,’ August ‘better’
County Treasurer Heidi Scheppe said the November date is “definitely feasible,” but added that it would be a time crunch for the county’s townships to update their millage databases. The August date will give them more time to double-check their work.
“For the convenience of everybody, August is a better proposal for us, but it’s not to say it can’t be done,” said Scheppe.
Nelson and other NMC officials haven’t offered many specifics about how they plan to spend proceeds from the tax hike, if voters approve it. College officials said they’re wary of violating state election laws if they reveal too much, but Nelson on Thursday mentioned technology investments, employee compensation, and a desire to “supplement resources we already have.”
TCAPS will ask for two increases: a $35-million, .2-mil bond proposal that includes reconstruction projects at three elementary schools, bus and technology replacements, and security upgrades at Central High School and West Middle School; and a second $13-million, .09-mil proposal for auditorium reconstruction at Central High School.
The two TCAPS millages, if approved, would take effect with summer property tax bills in 2014, said Christine Guitar, TCAPS spokeswoman.
Road commissioners want to ask voters for a two-year, 1-mil increase that would generate over $4 million a year if approved. The road commission would receive about $3 million with the rest of the revenue going to Traverse City, Kingsley and the county’s villages.