TRAVERSE CITY — Voters trounced Northwestern Michigan College’s request to increase property taxes to help support operation costs by a two-to-one margin.
The final tally of 7,855 to 3,901 reflected a 66.9 percent “no” vote. Only 16.8 percent of registered voters turned out, according to the Grand Traverse County Clerk’s office.
Approval would have meant a .4-mill property tax increase for 15 years to help pay for college operations, such as salaries and maintenance. The millage would have added $1.7 million in revenues in the first year.
Perry Harmon, a Grand Traverse Distillery manager, voted “no” because NMC officials were vague about how the money would be used.
“They didn’t give any clear direction on what they were going to do,” he said.
NMC President Tim Nelson said the money would support operations, but state law disallowed him from making promises or threats if the millage passed or failed.
Harmon also didn’t like the fact that NMC opted for a special election at an estimated cost of $68,000. The NMC board had voted to schedule the millage request in August, in part, because it believed it necessary to collect the higher tax this year. As it turns out, a November election would have achieved the same goal at no cost to the college.
Doug McWatters, an engineer, also voted no, fearing the increase would go toward executive salaries. He preferred NMC pare down its expenses.
“Any job I’ve ever done, you’re rated on how efficiently you perform,” he said.
College officials sought to restore the college’s operating millage to the 2.5742 level that voters approved back in 1995. The Headlee amendment and Proposal A lowered the property tax rate over time to limit tax revenues to the inflation rate.
Political consultant Mark Grebner said NMC officials “shot themselves in the foot” by choosing a special election date. That’s because absentee ballots overwhelm the percentage of total votes in these type of low turnout election. Absentee ballots are usually cast by the elderly, who tend to oppose property tax increases, he said.
For yesterday’s election, more than 5,300 absentee ballots were cast or about 45 percent of total votes. A complete count was not available at press time.
“Special elections are also costly, and that can tick off voters. You just turned out several hundred more (no votes) by getting them mad. It happens all the time,” he said.
David Goodwin, a truck driver, said the special election wasn’t a wise use of taxpayer money, but voted “yes” because education is a wise investment.
Other “yes” voters like Jennifer Stoll said they hold high regard for Nelson’s vision, such as the college’s collaboration with four-year universities and his international focus.
“Even though I don’t know where the money is going, I believe in what they’re doing,” Stoll said.
NMC Board Chairman Doug Bishop said it was premature to comment on the results. Nelson was unavailable for comment.
In other election news, voters narrowly approved a five-year, one-mill sinking fund to construct or repair school buildings of Forest Area Community Schools. The unofficial vote total was 186-176, according to the Kalkaska County Clerk’s office.