TRAVERSE CITY — A $43.6 million balanced budget for FY 2023 was approved this week by the Grand Traverse County board.
The largest source of revenues comes from taxes, which bring in $29.4 million, while the largest expenditure is public safety at about $18.5 million, documents show.
The budget includes 3 percent raises for all employees that were approved by the board last month. In all, employees have received 12.5 percent in raises since December. Wages are based on a study done last year by Municipal Advisory Group. The study found that county wages lag by up to 16 percent when compared to what are considered competitors in the job market.
The increases are part of an effort to become an employer of choice, especially in today’s job market, county Administrator Nate Alger has said.
Alger said the budget includes revenues from millages supporting Veterans Affairs, the Commission on Aging and Senior Center operations — even though ballot language hasn’t yet been approved by the board — because those are currently in the 2022 budget.
The VA tax has been recommended for renewal by county administrators for six years at .08 mills. The millage was first approved by voters in 2016 at a rate of up to .12 mills. That amount was lowered about two years ago to .08 mills because the tax was bringing in enough money to cover the agency’s needs, Alger said.
Michael Roof, director of Grand Traverse County VA, contacted the Record-Eagle to clarify some information “floating around” that is false. Roof would like to see the millage renewed at up to .1155 mills — the original amount minus rollbacks from the Headlee Amendment, a state law that says property taxes cannot increase by more than the rate of inflation.
“If they pass it at the maximum and we’re getting more money than we need we can ask the board of commissioners to lower it,” Roof said.
At the lower rate, if expenses come in higher the VA cannot raise the tax, Roof said. The office has been expanded, a mobile service unit was added that reaches out to veterans who may not know the benefits they are entitled to, and the price of fuel has gone up, he said.
At .08 mills the owner of a home with a taxable value of $150,000 pays about $12 per year. The higher rate of .1155 would cost another $5 per year.
Roof said the office is serving 112 fewer veterans, but they are getting about a combined $7 million more per year in federal compensation than they were in 2018 when he was hired.
“We’re helping veterans get their maximum benefits,” Roof said.
The millage this year brought in about $455,000. The VA has a fund balance of $650,000 — or more than 100 percent of its operating expenses.
Long Lake Township resident Hal Dorian doesn’t support the millage because he said it was based on “bogus” research that showed veterans were waiting up to 30 days for appointments for assistance at the VA office. According to Dorian, a later investigation found they were waiting just 10 days.
“A millage here and another millage there all add up,” Dorian said. “The DVA millage, built on false premises, was not valid nor necessary in 2016 and it’s certainly not valid in 2022.”
Former board member Gordie LaPointe also spoke out against the millage, bringing up many of the same arguments.
Roof said the information is not true, that when he started there was still an almost 30-day wait time. He said within a year he had reorganized the office and had wait times down to about a week.
“Now it’s pretty much same-day service,” he said.
Claims that an investigation found wait times were 10 days are false and an investigation was not done, Roof said.
According to previous Record-Eagle reporting, an internal county investigation led to the 2017 resignation of former director Chuck Lerchen after a report contended he mistreated veterans and employees and lacked effective leadership. It also accused Lerchen of reporting exaggerated wait times.
Ballot language for all millage renewals must be to the county clerk by Aug. 16. Alger had planned to put it on the agenda for the first meeting in August. Commissioner Betsy Coffia asked for the earlier date, saying that several board members are up for re-election and constituents should know where candidates stand on the millages before casting their votes in the Aug. 2 primary election.
Coffia may have been prompted by John Lefler, president of the Grand Traverse Area Veterans Coalition, who during public comment said he would like each commissioner to state their stance on the millage, whether they support the tax at its full amount or at the lower amount.
“I think this is important due to this being primary elections to give voters the chance to know who to vote for,” Lefler said.
The budget does not include the Animal Control millage, which was not collected because the deadline to get it on the 2020 ballot was missed. This year’s millage, if approved by commissioners at their July 20 meeting, will ask voters for a 6-year, .037-mill tax.
Animal control has been operating on money from its fund balance and the county’s general fund.