TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County taxpayers will pay less after the director of Veterans Affairs asked officials to decrease the millage funding his department.
“Every year we’ve received more money in taxes than what we’ve budgeted,” said Michael Roof, director of Grand Traverse County Veterans Affairs.
“Being two years into the millage appropriations, there is a much clearer picture of what is needed.”
For example, Roof said he’d budgeted $560,000 for 2019, and received $598,000. The additional revenue wasn’t spent; it was routed into a “reserve” account that continued to grow.
If left untouched for the duration of the millage — from 2016 to 2022 — Roof estimated the balance of the fund would climb to more than $860,000.
“For us, it’s not meant to be a reserve fund. That was the problem.”
County commissioners agreed on Sept. 4, and approved a resolution granting Roof’s request to lower it to .08 mills.
Roof estimated this will save taxpayers about $115,000 in 2020, with additional savings in 2021 and 2022.
For property owners with homes valued at $250,000, the expected savings is about $9, Roof said.
“It isn’t a lot, but my goal is to be the best steward of the taxpayers money,” he said.
Robert “Art” Eisner, chair of the committee that oversees Roof and his department, said he was in favor of the reduction and of Roof’s leadership.
“There’s been a big change since Michael took over,” Eisner said. “The office is a lot more transparent than it has been in the past. Keep in mind, when it was first voted on, we had no real history to base it on.”
In 2017, an internal investigation of employee complaints led to the resignation of the previous director, Chuck Lerchen, who had led the department for two decades.
Voters had passed .12 mills for veterans’ services in 2016, and the millage was subject to a “Headlee Rollback” in May to .1185. The Headlee Rollback became part of Michigan’s Constitution in 1978, and requires local units of government to reduce a millage when annual growth is greater than the rate of inflation.
“Lowering the millage does not mean a reduction in services to the veterans of our community but rather a chance to best serve at a level that is achievable as well as be a vital and fiscally responsible partner in our community,” Roof told commissioners.
Roof is a veteran himself, serving in the U.S. Marine Corp. from 1988 to 1990 as a heavy equipment operator and a primary marksman instructor.
His office is in the county building on LaFranier Rd. Staff works with veterans on benefit claims with state and federal government, applies for burial benefits, handles formal requests of VA flags from the post office, and offers access to state and private funding sources such as the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund.
“We don’t just hand them the paperwork,” Roof said. “We ask them to meet with us in person and we fill out their paperwork for them.”
Since taking over the department in January 2018, Roof assumed responsibilities that were once handled by an office manager, changed the role of another employee to provide more benefits counseling to clients, and began outreach at events like the Northwestern Michigan Fair and the Cherry Festival.
His office sends a staff member to the Kingsley Library the first Friday of the month from 2-4 p.m., and to the Interlochen Library the second Friday of the month, also from 2-4 p.m.
Roof said he is currently planning the 2020 outreach schedule and is looking for additional locations. Any group with access to a community facility is welcome to contact him at 231-995-6070.