By Megan Kelley
It was a lively night of passionate discussion during the Lake Orion Downtown Development Authority Board of Directors meeting on Tuesday, which included a presentation about the Orion Township Fire Department and a request for millage money.
Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett, township Trustee Brian Birney, the township board’s fire and police liaison, Fire Chief Rob Duke and Assistant Fire Chief John Pender joined the board seeking a reimbursement of roughly half of the DDA capture on the 2021 fire millage ($45,000) and the full capture for the remainder of the millage.
According to township documents, this year the DDA is expected to capture $94,419 from the millage that was approved by voters in August 2020.
“As you may know, the last several years, we have been seeking ALS, which if you aren’t familiar with that, it’s Advanced Life Support,” said Birney. “It’s advanced — right now, we’re at Basic Life Support. (It) doesn’t mean the quality is any less, it just means that with Advanced Life Support we have different criteria, we have different technology, we have different training, we have ambulances and it’s a way heightened support service for our residents.”
In addition to wanting to provide ALS to the community, the township officials also want to avoid using a third-party vendor, as they are currently doing.
“We have come to the conclusion that we cannot rely on these services anymore. While we have for a long time, it’s just a fact that our calls are a lot quicker when they come from our four stations around the township,” Birney said.
“There’s a dramatic increase (in DDA capture) from 2020 to 2021, from $54,000 to roughly $94,000 and that was a direct result of our millage that got passed. What we’re asking for now is the reimbursement of the overage, the $45,000, and then again, the full capture for the remainder of the millage,” Birney said. “It’s a costly endeavor. We knew going (to) ALS was going to be costly, but it was something that had to be done to give our residents the best advanced support we could possibly give them.”
DDA Board member Kristen Horvath asked whether it was standard practice for DDA boards to reimburse fire millage capture. DDA Executive Director Molly LaLone informed the board that it was not.
“All of the communities that I’ve contacted, nobody is signing a contract and giving money to the fire department in the form of giving back the millage. It is definitely a best practice in downtowns to have a contract for administrative services, for DPW services and for police department services,” LaLone said. “The best practice regarding the fire department is normally taking care of maintenance of the building, which we are doing somewhat with our taking care of the public restrooms, and we have on our agenda today some equipment for the fire department. Those are all things that are best practices and acceptable.”
In the past several years, the DDA contributions to the fire department include $138,500 for the installment of the parking lot (19 spaces) between fire station one and the Orion Art Center; contributes $3,000 in annual maintenance and cleaning; purchased a timer lock and card reader for the public restroom ($2,100), AED equipment ($1,525) and added an updated Knox Access Box ($2,723).
According to the township’s presentation, in March of this year, out of 231 calls for service, 113 were from station one on Anderson Street in the village, and 52 percent of calls for the fire department come from station one.
However, most of those calls were not from village residents, village council President Ken Van Portfliet said.
“Mr. (Joe) Young (village manager) did a little bit of fact-finding and he indicated to me that although there were 119 calls out of station one, roughly 30 of them are village residents. The other remaining portion, although it was dispatched from station one, it would be for other areas, not the village, per se.”
Young, corroborated Van Portfliet’s claim.
“That’s an average,” Young said. “In 2018-2019 the monthly reports show anywhere from 18-30 calls that were ‘village residents’ but now the report system that we have does not break it out; it just says it came from station one.”
Another reason township officials feel that the DDA should agree to the reimbursement is because they currently reimburse the Lake Orion Police Department (LOPD) for the capture on their millage. Something Barnett, who sits on the DDA board, says sets a “precedent.”
“There’s, from precedent with the police millage, that we (the DDA board) turn all of the police millage back to the village police department, so I think there’s some precedent set there,” Barnett said. “At our very last meeting one week ago, we approved the contract to turn over all of the capture of the police back to police.”
Van Portfliet, however, did not believe that the precedent was there, calling the LOPD and fire department “an apple in comparison to an orange.”
“The (Lake Orion) police department totally operates within the Village of Lake Orion, including the DDA district,” Young said. “The fire department services the whole township, and the service calls are not only not in the DDA district, but they’re also in the village and also in the township, so it’s not a clear comparison.”
While DDA board members expressed that they are happy to help with expenses, but had concerns with whether or not the DDA capture was already budgeted as funds that would not be available to the fire department.
“Yes, we knew that there was going to be a tax capture for the DDA. We fully were aware of that. We knew that ALS was going to be an expensive investment, we were fully aware of that,” Birney said.
“But when it comes down to extra costs and things — not necessarily because of you guys — we start looking at the bigger picture and saying, ‘Man, I’m not so sure the residents knew fully, because it doesn’t give a specific amount, that when they voted for that millage, that eventually $90,000 were going to go away and have nothing to do with the fire department’,” Birney said. “What I’m asking you guys is to think long and hard about what these things potentially could save, and obviously that’s lives.”
Barnett added that although this is how millages work, he believes that the tax capture should go to the fire department and, at a minimum, there should be discussion about the additional funds that the DDA is expected to capture this year that would not have been captured without the new milage (roughly $45,000).
While the township maintained that they would prefer this contract to be a “partnership”, ideas were thrown around involving the possibility of billing for services. This would mean that the DDA would be charged for fire department personnel when there are events held downtown.
According to Barnett, when residents voted on the millage in August 2020, the only precinct that did not pass the fire milage was precinct two in the village, where it failed by two votes.
Frustration began to bubble between township representatives and DDA board members when township officials made implications that the DDA was going to put the money toward projects other than the fire department and that the DDA was undeserving of the money to begin with.
Young was the first to speak up, taking issue with the idea that the DDA did not deserve the capture.
“The law was passed in 1985 to help revitalize, what back then were almost ghost towns. And the intent was to revitalize the downtown to make them vibrant, and that they would build the tax base of not only the downtown but of the surrounding community. It was capturing money to invest in the downtown but then could get a return on the investment back to all of the participating areas and jurisdiction,” Young said.
“To say it’s ‘taking’ is not an accurate and complete statement. It was an investment, and we have a return. And just like the budget that the DDA passes and acts on every year, they are investing the money back into the community to make it more attractive, to raise property values, which raises the taxes that everybody else collects as well. So, you said a partnership, it’s a partnership all the way around. It’s a win, win, win,” Young said.
However, the question on what the DDA did to deserve the capture was still up in the air for some.
“Taking $90,000 isn’t quite a partnership. What we’re looking for is to get some of those funds back to us to do the lifesaving jobs that the fire department does,” Birney said. “You guys got this huge raise for literally doing nothing. Thousands of dollars put on your lap for nothing when people thought they were voting for an increased lifesaving measures. That’s where I get frustrated with this whole thing is because that’s exactly what’s happened…the village, the DDA are well taken care of. They’re going to be even more better taken care of because of the improvements that we have and we’re going to implement here very soon and it costs a lot of money.
“I don’t want to go to somebody and say ‘Well, we couldn’t get this piece of equipment because we had to give $90,000 to the DDA.’ Do any of you? Because I don’t,” said Birney, who was noticeably demanding of the DDA board.
The six year fire millage was expected to generate expected to generate $5,696,466.81 in the first year alone. That’s up from $3.386 million the fire department collected the year before the 2020 millage increase vote took effect.
The fire department also planned more than $1.1 million in capital purchases each year from 2021 through 2026, except for in 2025 when the estimated capital purchases are $935,000.
More than 62 percent of voters passed the requested 3 mill Fire and Emergency Medical Services Operating Millage, which contained language that the DDA would capture some of the millage money under its TIF tax captures.
The township also remained firm that the precedent was there and that it is more important than ever to invest into the fire department.
“It would be one thing if nothing was happening with Orion Fire, if we were just business as usual, (but) we are going through the biggest change in the history of Orion Fire,” Barnett said. “All it is a request of the DDA to do the exact same thing we’re doing for the village admin services, for the village police services, for the village DPW services; we’re asking to do the same thing for fire. We provide all these services, and we will continue to, but I agree, it’s a partnership.”
DDA board member Joan Sheridan also took issue with the representation that she felt was being implied by the township.
“It seems to me that if the people voted and it’s written in the language that this (tax capture) supports the DDA, then you planned for it ahead of time,” Sheridan said. “The DDA has had unexpected expenses because of COVID, just like the fire department has, so maybe there’s a center ground here instead of ‘Return all the money that was captured.’
“I feel like it’s all or nothing and also an underlying tone that we don’t care about people and I don’t think that’s it. We do care about people,” Sheridan said.
DDA Chair Debbie Burgess also spoke up to quell some of the tension, stating that this presentation was meant to be just that — a presentation. She added that the DDA board was not expecting to be asked to make a decision on the request at that time.
Burgess then suggested that they revisit the request after board members had time to read through and process all of the information that was given to them.
Though the DDA board was hoping to finalize their budget the week before during their special meeting on April 6, the board was still unable to finalize the budget and instead voted unanimously to receive and file the paperwork.