What’s up with the Ypsilanti street light fee?

    I don’t generally take requests, but, seeing as how we haven’t talked for some time about how the tax burden in Michigan is increasingly shifting onto the backs of the poor and middle class, I thought that I’d take this suggestion for a post that was sent in last night, and run with it… Here, before we jump into things…and start debating the distinction between taxes and fees…. is the letter that I received.

    streetlight4

    As I admittedly don’t know much about this new street light fee, I decided to share this note with a number of folks in the area who are more acquainted with the facts than I am, and see what they had to say about it… And, yes, it’s technically a “fee”, and not a “tax”. Regardless of terminology, though, I still think it’s a subject worthy of discussion.

    Our first response comes from Ypsilanti Mayor Paul Schreiber, who had the following to say:

    The proposed streetlight special assessment is $99 per parcel. A streetlight special assessment does two things. One third of it pays for the capital expense of installing energy efficient LED light fixtures. This will reduce annual streetlight expenses by $100,000 (or 20% of total costs).

    The other two thirds of the streetlight special assessment pays for 80% of the operational costs of lighting the streetlights. Previously, the city paid 100% of the costs out of the general fund that also funds police, fire and other services that city residents depend upon. The assessment for streetlight operational costs will increase revenue to provide these services. Other cities such as Garden City, Romulus, and Flint have instituted a streetlight special assessment for the same reason.

    Ypsilanti city council is looking for ways to balance the city budget. The number of city employees has dropped by one third, the property tax revenues have dropped by 20% since the recession, and expenses have stayed stable. General fund reserves are projected to be used up by 2019 with the streetlight special assessment. Without it, the reserves will be depleted by 2018.

    I don’t like the streetlight special assessment because it is a regressive fee that charges the same regardless of size of property or income level. However, the city has no other viable revenue increasing options available. As you pointed out, the citizens of Ypsilanti soundly rejected the income tax twice and a Water Street debt millage once.

    Next up, we have City Council member Brian Robb. Here’s his contribution:

    First of all, it’s not a tax. It’s a fee. This isn’t a game of verbal gymnastics either. The State enabling legislation defines this as a fee.

    The creeping fee argument is a little specious too. Fees have been rising for various reasons. Sometimes the fee was not commensurate with the work being performed. Sometimes the fee increase is an inflationary increase. If I randomly select a few categories and compare them from 2007 to 2014, we get:

    2007 Kennel License: $75
    2014 Kennel License: $78

    2007 Plumbing Permit: $47
    2014 Plumbing Permit: $50

    2007 Zoning Text Amendment: $350
    2014 Zoning Text Amendment: $1000

    You could do a giant analysis of the fee schedule and find increases, but not to the extent that’s being alluded to in this note.

    As far as the shut-in, senior citizen living on a fixed income goes, that too, is a bit much. How Special Assessments are calculated cannot be based on income, wealth, or home value per the State enabling legislation. What is being assessed has to benefit the property not the person. Does the streetlight in front of your million dollar home create light with more benefit than the streetlight in front of my twenty thousand dollar house?

    Council had the opportunity to determine the fee residents would pay in a potential Streetlight Special Assessment district based on square footage of one’s lot, but chose to stick with something simple and regressive like a flat fee. Council dropped the ball on this one, and as a result, I am not supporting the Streetlight Special Assessment District.

    To make a fun example of Council’s poor decision, all you have to do is look at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church on West Cross Street. They take up the entire block bordered by North Hamilton to the east, Florence to the north, Ballard to the west, and West Cross to the South. Using the methodology the majority of Council favors, the church will pay around $100 in the first year of the district. Roughly speaking, there are about 23 properties that surround the church that will also pay $100 each (or $2300 in total) for those same streetlights. The majority of Council could have done better. It’s a shame they didn’t.

    There will always be detractors and people who point out loopholes. Surely somewhere in the City there is a shut-in, senior citizen living on fixed income who has a lot that is giant in comparison to her neighbor’s grand Victorian Queen Anne positioned on a much smaller property.

    The person who emailed you has a point about tax fairness, but unfortunately Council can only work within the scope of State law.

    Finally, to slyly refer to me as “a certain local billionaire” is mean-spirited and adds nothing to the discussion.

    And, I know that he’s not from Ypsi, but I also reached out to State Rep Jeff Irwin, as I thought that he might have something to add, given his Lansing perspective. Here’s what Jeff had to say:

    I think that your reader is begging the question: what is fairness? It’s a fascinating question. I don’t think I can get far into that but maybe I can add something of value.

    I’m not familiar enough with the tax or Ypsilanti’s budget to take on the specifics, but from a philosophical perspective I’d like to see the burden of providing public services fall more heavily on the folks who benefit most from our civil society. The people who benefit most from our system of schools, roads, hospitals and security are the super rich, aka our benevolent corporate overlords.

    So, I can understand your reader’s frustration, I share it. That’s why the first bill I ever introduced in the State House was to provide for a graduated income tax.

    Having said that, it seems relevant to mention that, in Michigan, there is a clear difference between a “fee” and a “tax.” A tax can only be initiated by a vote of the people while a fee can be created by a simple act of the legislature or a local government body. Taxes can be designed to be more or less regressive. Fees, however, must be directly attributable to the cost of providing the service. If total fees exceed the total administrative costs or if a particular fee is out of line with the cost of servicing that customer, then the assessment is a “tax” and not a “fee.” This distinction is largely set out in the “Bolt decision“.

    So, the city can not choose to charge some customers more than others for providing the same city services unless that assessment is brought forward as a tax proposal that is approved by the people at the ballot box. Our Michigan Constitution prevents it.

    I’ll add that our Michigan Constitution also severely limits the taxing authority of local governments in Michigan. For the most part, local units of government can only levy property taxes and, in limited allowances, income taxes (and even then a graduated rate is forbidden). Many other states allow local taxes on sales, gas or event tickets; Michigan does not. As a result, the Ypsilanti City Council is very limited in their options and the State of Michigan has been making the situation worse for local governments for the last decade. (The state has cut revenue both by reducing revenue sharing and by avoiding its responsibility to provide services to state property like EMU and UofM. Our communities have lost millions in what used to be called “fire protection grants” when the state compensated local units for providing fire protection to the universities.)

    And, I also reached out to Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith. Here’s his take:

    I think the equity of infrastructure taxes is tough to figure out the closer you get to the individual taxpayer, but your reader’s argument that a flat assessment for lighting is regressive is completely accurate. A special assessment appears to be the least equitable but most expeditious approach. That is, Council can just do it and get the project underway. I worry about that approach and about the structure of the assessment.

    In communities with widely disparate income strata, progressive tax models are essential to support social mobility. Ypsi is a great example of a community that should be very careful to maintain a balanced tax structure. In many progressive tax models the rate of taxation changes depending on the base. For example, at the federal level, your income tax rate increases as you make more money. We handle community projects a bit differently. For equity in infrastructure financing, we typically attempt to fix the rate and apply it to a variable base. For example, the rich and poor pay the same gas tax rate but different amounts depending on the type and amount of gas they consume. Your water bill is the same: a fixed rate but the amount you pay differs based on usage.

    How, though, would you equitably assess for lighting infrastructure? What if you never go out at night; should you still pay? Is there a public safety benefit (yes) that you should be contributing to? The Michigan answer to this issue of fairly distributing the costs of providing a public service has been to use property value as the base. This is what we do for drainage work, for the construction of public buildings, etc. So, in the case of lighting, an ad valorem assessment might be the more equitable way to approach this problem.

    You could do this via a millage. However, a millage only applies to those who pay property taxes, and in Ypsi that’s only about 60 percent of the landowners. Public entities (the County, EMU, the schools, etc.) don’t pony up for millages. And, a millage is subject to a vote of the people, while this special assessment isn’t necessarily because it was enabled prior to the adoption of the Headlee Amendment. Council’s decision could still be challenged by referendum, I think.

    I’m not a lawyer, but the way I read the statute, I think the city could assess the lighting charges on the basis of property values. Since EMU et al are already exempt, the city could draw the special assessment district so as not to include them, making an ad valorem methodology viable. This would make the assessment much more progressive.

    That said, I think the whole special assessment approach in this case is rife with risk. Michigan statute sort of calls out lighting as an unusual case in that a special assessment can be used for the maintenance and operation of the system. The city charter, however, doesn’t invoke this clause in its special assessment section, which I think puts the proposal at risk. Rather, the charter envisions more traditional public improvements, specifically enumerating sewers and streets for example.

    If the argument then is that lighting is to be considered a more traditional public improvement, it faces a tough time not being labeled a tax. The intent behind special assessments is that the payees receive a benefit above and beyond that of the community itself. Hard to argue that here, especially since no new lighting is being added to the existing base. Special assessments generally are not to be levied to offset the general expenses of government. Given that Ypsi has had a street lighting system for many years, I think what the city is proposing is that the operations costs of the current lighting infrastructure be offset with a new assessment rather than paid for by the general fund. Also, a special assessment is supposed to result in a measurable improvement in the value of the property being assessed. Again, I think it is hard to make the case that keeping the lights on as they are today results in an improvement (although clearly turning them off could be a measurable harm).

    One mediating thing you could do is back out the infrastructure improvement costs. Based on the city manager’s projections, the improvements would cost $556K and save $109K annually. That’s a short, five-year payback period. If it were up to me, I’d just capitalize that work and pay back the funding source with the savings. If the city has cash reserves, this would be a fine use of them (incidentally, property values modestly increased in Ypsi last year so there should be a budget surplus somewhere). Alternately, you could bond for this work, which would drive up the total cost with the inclusion of interest and fees, but probably not extend the payback period more than a year. Or you could partner with any number of alternate financiers, from the State of Michigan which has a revolving loan fund for energy efficiency, to the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office which funded a project of this size in St. Clair Shores at zero percent interest.

    Street lighting is expensive and necessary, so the city is in an unenviable position trying fund a critical public service in a tough economic and political environment. I think they and the public need to weigh the benefits of expeditious action against the importance of an equitable distributed tax system and a solid and defensible policy. Myself, I’d urge that 1) the assessment be modified to be ad valorem if possible for equity purposes and 2) a charter amendment clarifying the authority of the city to assess for lighting operations be adopted for to address procedural fairness concerns.

    And, lastly, we have this anonymous note, sent from an acquaintance who seems to be somewhat in the know:

    First of all, it is not a tax. It’s a one time special assessment laid upon users of street lights, in order to replace the existing lights with more long-lasting and energy efficient LED lights. Replacement should produce a cost savings over the long run. However, I’d be more correct to say that it SHOULD be an assessment of users. As it stands, EMU, non-profits, and churches will not pay into this. They should, since they’re all users of the service. And they legally COULD be assessed, as this isn’t a tax. However, something happened, and City Council, or someone (not sure who… maybe Ralph Lange?), has acted like it was a tax, and exempted the non-profits, all of whom nevertheless use the street lights. Already crazy right? But wait, there’s more.

    The City has ALREADY gone ahead with installation, as if everything was already approved by the citizens. And, now, after the fact, they’re setting up public input meetings. In fairness, they had to meet a DTE deadline to get the discount/grant from DTE, but they went ahead without the public hearings, and now they’re doing them sort of after the fact, and after exempting the non-profit users, and starting the replacement of the lights.

    But there’s still more. The City Clerk’s office mailed the public hearing announcements bulk rate, and the City charter says they have to be mailed first class, so the City has to do the mailing over again… extra labor and extra costs, probably caused by cuts in City staff. (Volunteers or student interns likely did the mailing.)

    Your reader who wrote in is correct that we would probably not be doing this if we had passed the income tax, but it wasn’t passed, and so we now have assessments and stupid proposals, like a hybrid police/fire department, etc.

    I don’t support this decision by the City, as I don’t think it’s fair to do it on the backs of some of the users, but not all of them… including some really big ones, like EMU and several of the churches and other non-profits.

    For what it’s worth, a former Ypsilanti City Council member just wrote to me and said that this is merely “a harbinger of things to come.”

    So, what do you think? Are we becoming a nation where street lights are only for the rich?

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      66 Comments

      1. BrianR
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 12:28 am | Permalink

        The problem with anonymous sources that think they are insiders is they are never inside enough.

        As it stands, EMU, non-profits, and churches will not pay into this. They should, since they’re all users of the service. And they legally COULD be assessed, as this isn’t a tax.

        There are 4,951 parcels in the City. Of those 4,951 parcels, 111 are owned by the City of Ypsilanti with another 26 being part of EMU. The proposed assessment district with be made up of the remaining 4,814 parcels.

        Non-profits will be assessed. Churches will be assessed. Highland Cemetery will be assessed. EMU won’t be assessed because they are exempt due to State of Michigan case law.

        The City has ALREADY gone ahead with installation, as if everything was already approved by the citizens. And, now, after the fact, they’re setting up public input meetings. In fairness, they had to meet a DTE deadline to get the discount/grant from DTE, but they went ahead without the public hearings, and now they’re doing them sort of after the fact, and after exempting the non-profit users, and starting the replacement of the lights.

        Not quite. Council entered into an agreement back in February to replace 260 mercury vapor streetlights (and those streetlights have already been replaced and are saving money) because there were some very sweet rebates from DTE at that time. We had already budgeted $50K the previous year to do those conversions. Council just entered into another agreement with DTE to replace 167 more mercury vapor streetlights as well as 338 high pressure sodium streetlights.

        The first agreement with DTE had a ROI of 3.18 years. The second agreement with DTE has a ROI of 4.81 years.

        There are going to be people who say that Council is going ahead with the installations because the assessment district is a done deal, but I respectfully disagree. I don’t favor the assessment district, but I favor the installations. At a time when the City has to be judicious about how we invest our money, cutting our DTE bill by 20% for a $556K investment is a wise use of capital.

        Finally, in case anyone forgot, non-profits and churches are still going to be assessed.

        But there’s still more. The City Clerk’s office mailed the public hearing announcements bulk rate, and the City charter says they have to be mailed first class, so the City has to do the mailing over again… extra labor and extra costs, probably caused by cuts in City staff. (Volunteers or student interns likely did the mailing.)

        The mailings were done out of the City Manager’s office not the Clerk’s office. Hopefully we’ll have a closed session this coming Tuesday to discuss this issue further, but this error wasn’t caused by interns or volunteers.

        I don’t think it’s fair to do it on the backs of some of the users, but not all of them… including some really big ones, like EMU and several of the churches and other non-profits.

        Churches and non-profits will still be assessed.

      2. Free Fee
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 1:39 am | Permalink

        Copied from: http://www.crcmich.org/TaxOutline/

        In a 1998 state Supreme Court decision, Bolt v City of Lansing, the court laid out three criteria to distinguish a fee from a tax:

        -User fees must serve a regulatory purpose rather than a revenue-raising purpose;
        -User fees must be proportionate to the necessary costs of the service or commodity, and imposed on those benefiting from the right/service/improvement supported by the fee; and
        -User fees are voluntary in nature.

        Contrasted with fees are taxes levied by government. By implication, a tax:

        -Is to be levied to raise revenue for the general operation of government;
        -Is to be levied to benefit the general public; and
        -Is compulsory in nature.

        A fee may be thought of as a charge that permits an individual or other entity access to a government service or to a privilege granted by government, whereas a tax simply underwrites the provision of governmental services available to anyone, whether the tax has been paid or not. For example, a toll on a bridge or highway permits a specific individual access to the bridge or highway and is, therefore, a fee. On the other hand, a gasoline tax, which also pays for bridges and highways, confers no special privilege and is, therefore, a tax.

        So … since this is not a “tax,” it’s not compulsory? It’s voluntary? Will there be a check box on my city “tax” form asking if I want to volunteer to pay this “fee”?

      3. Free Fee
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 1:56 am | Permalink

        Why are only streetlights being “billed” as fees? Why not snow removal on streets, trash removal, park maintenance, public security…?

        Can anyone explain what “city services” couldn’t be covered by a “fee” as opposed to a “tax”?

        None of your contributors seems to truly embrace this proposal:

        Mayor Schreiber: “I don’t like the streetlight special assessment because it is a regressive fee that charges the same regardless of size of property or income level.”

        Councilman Brian Robb: “…[council] chose to stick with something simple and regressive like a flat fee. Council dropped the ball on this one…”

        Anonymous: “…and so we now have assessments and stupid proposals…”

        The most stupid thing about this proposal might be that, if it turns out the Citizens Research Council of Michigan is right and paying this “fee” is voluntary, not enough people pay it to keep the lights on.

        What’s council’s backup plan?

      4. Free Fee
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 2:35 am | Permalink

        Sorry. Last comment. Really, since tomorrow I’m leaving for vacation (UP, of course, no Internet access).

        I realize I didn’t comment on Representative Irwin’s contribution (I generally support Irwin). But… he mentioned the “Bolt decision.”

        Which, if you’ve been reading, the esteemed CRC also referenced.

        Since I won’t be around to engage this discussion further, I am going to shift to all caps.

        ACCORDING TO THE BOLT DECISION USER FEES ARE VOLUNTARY IN NATURE.

        Sorry for that. I won’t be around to follow up. I just hope someone will take up the mantra that:

        USER FEES ARE VOLUNTARY IN NATURE.

        Oops. Shouted again. But, while I’m gone, would someone please press folks to answer whether or not this fee is voluntary?

        Jeff, Paul, Brian, Anonymous … Are fees voluntary? If not, how are they different from taxes?

        For the record, I like paying taxes. Streetlights, I don’t like at all. They dull the stars. I would pay a fee to rid the city of streetlights. Is that an option? Or do I have to pay a fee for something I don’t want?

      5. tommy
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 3:57 am | Permalink

        Bottom line – shit costs money. I thought that lights in my community was paid for in our property tax bill. I will have look and find out how we keep our streets lit.

      6. Posted August 2, 2013 at 5:17 am | Permalink

        “For the record, I like paying taxes. Streetlights, I don’t like at all. They dull the stars. I would pay a fee to rid the city of streetlights. Is that an option? Or do I have to pay a fee for something I don’t want?”

        I’m with Free Fee on this one. I’m not totally against street/sidewalk lighting, but I think we often tend to carry it too far. I could do with fewer streetlights that are less bright. Since fees are voluntary, I’m assuming I can opt not to pay this, right? Because if it were mandatory, that would make it a tax.

      7. Kevin
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 7:40 am | Permalink

        And some of us rich people voted for a city income tax…TWICE.

      8. John Galt
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        The founding fathers did quite well without street lights, medicine, heat, etc.

      9. Charlie
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        There aren’t even street lights on my block. I rent, but I’m eager to see what sort of fees my landlord is assessed to NOT light our dangerously dark dead-end lot.

      10. Glen S.
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        I’m not in favor of this plan. I definitely agree that it is regressive, and I’m no fan of what I consider to be a “nickle-and-dime” approach to paying for basic city services. That said, I find it hard to believe that anyone here is actually surprised that this is now being proposed.

        More than a year ago, a small handful of our city’s wealthiest residents and largest land-owners launched a well-funded campaign to convince their neighbors to defeat the City Income Tax proposal. If passed, the CIT would have helped to pay for basic city services (like streetlights) for many years to come. It also would have helped to make the burden of paying for these services at least somewhat more progressive — in part because it was income-based, and likewise, because it would have included many people in our community who currently benefit from these services, but don’t share in their cost.

        As we all know, that proposal failed by a nearly 2/3 margin. Meanwhile, however, Ypsilanti’s budget crisis has only continued to grow: Taxable values (and therefore, tax revenue) continue to be near historic lows; revenue-sharing from Lansing continues to drop; the “personal property tax” that allows cities like Ypsilanti to assess manufacturing facilities and equipment, is being phased out. The list goes on, and on …

        Meanwhile, one of the few options that cities like Ypsilanti have left to raise revenue is by instituting or increasing fees — but even here, they are hamstrung by rules that forbid fees that are more than the *actual* cost of delivering a particular service — or, in the case of the “streetlight assessment,” prohibit them from charging non-profits, or making the fee more proportional, based on frontage or property value, etc.

        I get the sense that even the folks (on Council) who are proposing this plan believe that this streetlight tax (sorry, “fee”) is regressive … and likely feel it is a less-than-ideal solution. However, at this point, I can hardly blame them for trying to do whatever they can to keep paying the bills, and to keep buying time …

      11. Marie
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        In the real world, meaning in most Michigan communities, 44 mils is considered a *very* high property tax. People who buy into those districts (East Grand Rapids, Birmingham, Ann Arbor for example) feel justified in paying the higher taxes because of the services the cities provide, like excellent school systems and policing. Contrast that to Ypsilanti, where the millage is 64! This is roughly %150 of Ann Arbor tax rates. What this results in is that, with the exception of the “true believers”, no thoughtful person is going to choose to buy property here. If the goal is to grow the city and make it vibrant, financially hamstringing the residents and simultaneously repelling any middle class residents who would otherwise choose to buy here is the opposite of what we need.

        But I digress. My main point is that if Ypsi is going to charge me 150% of Ann Arbor property tax rates, then the city has **no right to come back to the property owners for any more money, under any circumstances**. In fact, they should be lowering our taxes. I’d be happy to pay a 5-year (voluntary) light fee of $100 each year in exchange for lowering our mills to 44.

        I’d like to thank Jeff Irwin for explaining that the Michigan constitution severely limits revenue sources. I’m curious about the history of how that got in there. This seems like a constitutional amendment waiting to happen.

        I’d also like to thank Conan Smith for providing some practical solutions which I will paste in here in case anyone missed it:

        “Based on the city manager’s projections, the improvements would cost $556K and save $109K annually. That’s a short, five-year payback period. If it were up to me, I’d just capitalize that work and pay back the funding source with the savings. If the city has cash reserves, this would be a fine use of them (incidentally, property values modestly increased in Ypsi last year so there should be a budget surplus somewhere). Alternately, you could bond for this work, which would drive up the total cost with the inclusion of interest and fees, but probably not extend the payback period more than a year. Or you could partner with any number of alternate financiers, from the State of Michigan which has a revolving loan fund for energy efficiency, to the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office which funded a project of this size in St. Clair Shores at zero percent interest.”

      12. Edward
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        You can call it whatever you want but street lighting is something which has traditionally been covered by taxes, and now it’ll be covered by a highly regressive fee.

      13. Demetrius
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        The bigger picture:

        For nearly three years, Governor Snyder and his cronies in Lansing have been engaged in a Koch-fueled orgy of tax- and spending-cuts primarily designed to benefit the wealthy 1%, and corporations.

        At the same time, numerous Michigan cities and school districts are now under the control of unelected, unaccountable, “emergency” managers, and Michigan’s largest city is in bankruptcy … with thousands of former police officers, firefighters, clerks and trash collectors set to lose their pensions and health benefits. Michigan is literally pulling the plug on public school districts in poor communities … in favor of more private, for-profit “schools. Thousands of Michigan residents continue to go with out basic health insurance because Lansing continues to fight against “Obamacare.” And, all across our state, many roads, bridges, and water and sewer systems are badly in need of repair … with no hope of funding to fix or upgrade them, etc.

        Meanwhile, here in Ypsilanti, we are squabbling over whether to introduce a $100 per household fee to continue funding as basic an element of civilized society as maintaining streetlights to keep residents and visitors safe.

        “Pure Michigan,” indeed.

      14. Erik
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        Colorado Springs chose to turn off the majority of their streetlights and allowed individuals the option to pay to turn their streetlight back on.

        http://www.salon.com/2013/03/12/can_crowdfunding_kickstart_struggling_cities_partner_2/

      15. Posted August 2, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/459/what-kind-of-country

        See act three

      16. Posted August 2, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        I could support the streetlight special assessment. *Could.*

        The city’s revenues have declined year after year, forcing a lot of cuts to services, and leaving Council to try to find ways to slow the decline. That’s what this is: a way to slow the cuts in services in the short term and make the city more fiscally sustainable in the long-term.

        I understand the special assessment to have two parts:

        1 . Getting the cost of maintaining the street light system out of the general fund. This is a fee — because it is defined in state law as a fee. (That doesn’t make it “voluntary” on a per-person basis, and you should absolutely consult a lawyer before you attempt to assert that by not paying it.) This is a good thing because, well, it prevents bad things: would you rather have a streetlight SA, or have the streetlights turned off? Would you rather have a streetlight SA, or be forced to choose between turning the streetlights off and firing a couple more police officers?

        (We can rail all we want at the Governor, or the Michigan economy, or the Koch Brothers, and maybe those are all valid complaints. But the only way this decision affects any of those — maybe, if we’re lucky — is if we want to refuse to pay and disconnect all the streetlights in protest, in hopes that it’ll get the Governor’s and Legislature’s attention and force the State to act. If you think that’s the path we should go, I’ll introduce you to some folks in Highland Park who can tell you just how well it works.)

        2. Updating the streetlight system to modern high-efficiency technology that’ll save the city money on its DTE service contract long-term. This is a good thing because it’s an upfront cost that will pay itself off in a reasonable amount of time, creating a long-term cost efficiency. I don’t think it would make sense to move the operating costs into a special assessment without doing the efficiency work: a little more expenditure at the beginning will keep our costs down overall.

        So I could support this — and I did, when the city was looking at parcel size as the measure for how much people would owe. I find parcel size (as measure by street frontage, best, or lot perimeter or area as more ready-to-hand estimates) to be a decent heuristic for what people get out of the streetlight system, as well as of the value of the property. A bigger parcel will pay more — and also probably means it’s an extra-large and high value home, a multi-family investment property, or a business or institutional property.

        I’m one of those people Mr. Robb mentions with a home on a tiny parcel across the street from a huge honkin’ parking lot, wondering why I’m paying as much for my 45 feet of streetlight-brightened frontage as they are for their 1200 linear feet of illuminated frontage. When this was a plan for everybody in town to step up with their little piece of the solution, I was for it. As a one-size-fits-all plan, though, it does look an awful lot like the residents are taking on the costs at a wildly disproportionate rate.

        So, to Council: please try again. I know the one-size plan is “easy”, but it’s perfectly doable to design a system that has at least some mapping of cost to benefit. (In fact, I think you’d already had one, based on earlier news coverage and council packets…)

      17. Emma
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        We already have working streetlights, there is no reason to buy new streetlights. How much (old street light) electricity can we buy with the cost of these new streetlights? If they want to save money install solar lights or lights with little windmills on the top.
        This shouldn’t even be something that is considered. Spending money to save money doesn’t make sense, it is like buying a new car because your old car needs tires.

      18. Emma
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        I mean to save money replace the old lights, that are not able to be repaired, with non DTE electric bill generating lights.

      19. Posted August 2, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

        According to Facebook, only 4 people like this post. I find that kind of depressing.

      20. Conan Smith
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

        FYI, a special assessment is neither a tax nor a fee. It’s kind of a hybrid. You don’t get a choice about paying it, as you would if it were a fee. It’s typically not charged on the value of your home, like a tax is, but a special assessment will show up on your property tax bill with a millage rate of 0.000 — it is due as part of your tax bill. Because of this, I suspect aspects of the Bolt decision are applicable, but mostly I’d guess that the legislation sets special assessments up clearly enough to obviate it.

      21. Jennifer
        Posted August 2, 2013 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

        I don’t have Facebook, but I like this post, Mark, even if I also find it totally depressing.

      22. Posted August 3, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

        Can we add another question? The streetlight assessment has two parts:
        $33 per parcel annually for conversion to LED for 7 years,
        $66 per parcel annually for the cost of operations and maintenance for 18 years.

        If the assessment was $33 per year over seven years for the LED conversion only and the city continued to pay for streetlight operations and maintenance, would people support it?

        Paul Schreiber
        734-277-5446

      23. emma
        Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        Why weren’t the costs and supposed benefits outlined in the letter sent to residents? There are many numbers being thrown around here. Where are they coming from?
        Are the proposed fixtures dark sky approved?
        http://www.darksky.org/outdoorlighting

      24. Posted August 3, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        The city manager’s report and presentation on the streetlight special assessment can be found at http://cityofypsilanti.com/Community/News/newsid782/152/mid/782.

        Paul Schreiber
        734-277-5446

      25. Aaron B.
        Posted August 5, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        I would support $33 for 7 years… I like the idea of installing LED lights I am just a bit lost as to why we need to pay more for operation and maintenance when the whole idea of the LED lights is that they will save the city money and so if the city already operates the lights and maintains them wont they save money without needing to charge folks $66 a year for 18 years? That is the part I find fishy.

      26. Conan Smith
        Posted August 5, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

        Again, although this is a special assessment and thus a bit of a different situation, I think the City needs to be very careful to craft this so it is not seen as a Headlee violation. Last week, Gongwer News Service reported that Jackson didn’t fare so well with a similar attempt to turn a service into a fee-based activity . . .

        Volume #52, Report #151 — Friday, August 2, 2013

        Appeals Court Rules Jackson Fee Violates Headlee Amendment

        Relying heavily on a Supreme Court decision striking down a similar type of fee in Lansing, the Court of Appeals on Friday ruled a storm water assessment in Jackson violated the Headlee Amendment.

        The fee the city set up to avoid tapping its general fund to pay the costs of maintaining its storm water drainage system is in fact a tax enacted without public approval, Judge William Murray, Judge Joel Hoekstra and Judge Donald Owens ruled per curiam in Jackson County v. Jackson City (COA docket No. 307685).

        The case was a consolidation of several brought by property owners against the city over the fee, which it began collecting in 2011.

        The city decided to assess the fee to help meet rising costs for the storm water system and allow its general fund to maintain funds for other needs. The ordinance creating the fee assessed all properties, but also gave credits if property owners used storm water maintenance, such as rain gardens or rain barrels.

        Quoting extensively from Bolt v. Lansing, in which the Supreme Court ruled a similar fee in Lansing was a tax, the court said the Headlee Amendment bars local governments from saying that their activities are services and then assessing a fee.

        And the court said the fee is compulsory in nature, which bolstered its determination that the fee was an inappropriate tax.

      27. Posted August 6, 2013 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

        … as long as we’re lowering the property tax. If the general fund is no longer paying for 100% of street lighting i expect to see my property tax reduced accordingly, and the savings passed onto me.

        As far as income tax is concerned, I work hard for my money, and I expect all my neighbors to pay for their own s**t. I already pay an arm and a leg in property taxes to live in this dump, and my personal income plays no role in the quality of services I receive. The city isn’t helping me earn a higher income, on the contrary, they repel businesses left and right. there isn’t a single job for me in this town.. NOT A SINGLE JOB!

        Ann Arbor got a Google office, Detroit got Amazon.. .what businesses did Ypsilanti get?

      28. Demetrius
        Posted August 6, 2013 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

        “… I work hard for my money, and I expect all my neighbors to pay for their own s**t. I already pay an arm and a leg in property taxes to live in this dump, and my personal income plays no role in the quality of services I receive.”

        John Galt … when did you start posting as “Emanuel?”

      29. Jcp2
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink

        The proper way to turn this into a fee is to get the city to remove street lighting from its list of services, turn off all the lights, including the ones around tax exempt entities, and then charge a fee based on street frontage for turning the lights for that stretch for a set time period. I believe that would qualify as an activity.

      30. Meta
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        The prices are dropping.

        CITY COUNCIL SCALES BACK STREET LIGHTING SPECIAL ASSESSMENT PROPOSAL

        The City Council on Tuesday scaled back the street lighting special assessment to only the portion that finances the conversion to the energy efficient LED lamps. If that proposal is adopted, the assessment will now be for only TWO years and assessment amount will be for $57-$58 per year and will result in the reduction of over $100K/year in street lighting costs.

        There are still two public hearings scheduled on the issue, on August 20th and September 3.

        Read more:
        http://www.heritage.com/articles/2013/08/08/ypsilanti_courier/news/doc5203db9368fe2888013711.txt?viewmode=default

      31. Posted August 8, 2013 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

        How did the cost of the conversion suddenly drop from $33/yr for 7 years ($231, ignoring the time value of money) to $57-$58/yr for 2 years ($115)? Did DTE agree to waive half the conversion cost or what?

      32. Pete Murdock
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

        It never was $33 for seven years. It was $16.50 for seven years. The Mayor misspoke in his post.

      33. Free Fee
        Posted August 11, 2013 at 12:47 am | Permalink

        I stand corrected (although I had to do considerable research to figure out why Murph, whom I tend to trust via these posts, suggested such a “fee” was allowed under state law).

        This is not a “fee.” It is a “special assessment.” (Unfortunately, neither Mr. Robb or Mr. Irwin noted this fact, calling it a “fee” which, turns out, is quite a different thing..)

        To quickly summarize: a “fee” is generally assessed for an individual benefit. I want urban chickens. I eat the eggs. I pay the fee.

        A “special assessment” can be more broadly defined … more like a condo improvement of financial benefit to condo owners. The city is landscaping our lawns, which will increase our property values, so they assess us for the improvement.

        The first key to understanding “special assessments” is that they have to increase property values at an equivalent rate to the assessment. Whether the streetlight proposal meets this is another discussion…

        The second is that a “special assessment district” has to be created. “District” would seem to define a limited geography … you’ll note in your most recent letter from the city that council is seeking to make the entire city a “special district.” Once we approve our entire city as a “special district” one wonders at what can’t be assessed? Another discussion… perhaps a legally important one…

        Finally, though, a “special assessment district” is supposed to produce a benefit unique to the assessed and distinct from “the general public.” Here’s the latest decision I found:

        It is the settled law, that special assessments may be sustained upon
        the theory that the property assessed receives some special benefit
        from the improvement differing from the benefit that the general
        public enjoys. This is the foundation of the right to levy special
        assessments and without such foundation the right must fail.

        City of Lansing v. Jenison, 1918

        Funny though, in the letter awaiting me from my return from a place that had no streetlights, the FAQ sent from the city asked:

        “Why do all parcels pay the same amount?”

        The answer:

        “…because everyone benefits from streetlights…”

        So if special assessments, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, by definition, differ “from the benefit that the general public enjoy,” then this streetlight tax/fee/special assessment is unconstitutional by whatever name you call it.

        Murph? Councilmembers?

      34. Free Fee
        Posted August 11, 2013 at 1:14 am | Permalink

        One side discussion. When I lived in a nearby major city, it was never quieter than during a blackout. Criminals don’t want to carry torches, and lots of them, it would seem, are afraid of the dark. Here’s another approach to saving money. Turn off the streetlights when the bars close (or sooner):

        http://www.thisisbristol.co.uk/Burglars-afraid-dark-Crime-falls-Bristol-street/story-13952633-detail/story.html#axzz2bdchcUYm

      35. Free Fee
        Posted August 11, 2013 at 1:24 am | Permalink

        I just mention it because a “special assessment” has to show a tangible, financial benefit to payers. The city’s “Quick Facts” mailer says “everyone benefits” from streetlights but doesn’t name how “everyone benefits.”

        Everyone. (Important for a “special assessment.”)

        If I never leave my house after dusk, it’s not clear to me how I benefit?

        Anyone?

      36. Free Fee
        Posted August 14, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

        Hello.

        Any comments? Insight? Murph? Council? To summarize:

        -Can something the city claims”everyone benefits from” be a special assessment in light of a Supreme Court ruling that says that to qualify for a special assessment: “the property assessed receives some special benefit from the improvement differing from the benefit that the general public enjoys“?

        -Have we considered simply turning the lights off from say, 1:30 to 5 a.m.?

      37. Free you r an idiot
        Posted August 15, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        The statement everyone benefits from street lights is like saying the sky is blue. It is so obviously true it doesn’t need to be debated.

      38. Free Fee
        Posted August 16, 2013 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

        So you agree, Fyrai, that the streetlight special assessment is unconstitutional! Awesome. If only our doctor in residence, Murph, or some elected official would comment, we might avoid a class action…

        Ah, though, beautiful night … the sky is so … black. Wait! I thought the sky was blue?! Now it looks all blacky!!!

        Don’t tell me there are different views of, gasp, the SKY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      39. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:32 am | Permalink

        As Glen S said, “More than a year ago, a small handful of our city’s wealthiest residents and largest land-owners launched a well-funded campaign to convince their neighbors to defeat the City Income Tax proposal…”

        The result? Let’s name names. Steve Pierce will pay the same rate to ride his Segway at dusk in the comforting glow of streetlights as a dying old lady who never leaves her house. (Yes, saw Steve at Heritage Festival just today.)

        I love that Mark blogs here about big, national stuff and puts in his local sense. But this is a real, tangible, actionable, local issue.

        The poorest of our community will be required to pay as much to light a can of beans as the richest to light their bean empire.

        Everyone who felt akin to the 99% … it’s home.

        If I could pick and choose where my tax dollars went to … I’d pick schools, library, police, fire … I really, really don’t give a damn about streetlights. I have a flashlight. I also don’t care about snowplows. I work from home.

        Am I really totally alone? Is Ypsi about to become a city of “make the poor pay as much as the rich”?

      40. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        Murph?

      41. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        Who uses streetlights from 2-5 a.m.?

      42. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:34 am | Permalink

        Can we assess the 2-5 a.m. users a special fee?

      43. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:35 am | Permalink

        How about a trial run? Turn off the streetlights for a couple nights. Assess crime data.

      44. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:36 am | Permalink

        If you’ve been waiting for an issue, here it is.

      45. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:38 am | Permalink

        It’d be nice if Ypsi were the first urban environment to discard streetlights. That’d be more in line with our heritage than being the first to make the entire city a “special assessment.”

      46. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:39 am | Permalink

        Murph? Is this even legal?

      47. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:41 am | Permalink

        I think it’d be awesome if Ypsi were the first city in Mich to let the stars come out… at least a lot more awesome than letting Steve Pierce reduce his taxes.

      48. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:43 am | Permalink

        Okay … I’ve claimed the recent comments (sorry) … but everyone seems to agree this is immoral, no one has affirmed it’s legal … do we just move on?

      49. Free Fee
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:47 am | Permalink

        Sorry for the interruption. Proceed at directing outrage at things, far away, that no reader can do anything about.

      50. Posted August 17, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

        I like your style, Free Free.

        Here are my two cents.

        This sucks, for the reasons you outlined. I don’t suspect, however, that anyone will take your “turn off the streetlights” idea seriously, even if there were data to support that crime didn’t, in fact, rise in their absence. Streetlights are a signifier of s healthy community. When you hear them talk, as they sometimes do, of shutting off the streetlights in Detroit, people gasp. The implication is that your community is done. Over. And we don’t want that.

        With that said, we’re in a tough spot. We all want lights… with the exception of you, of course… but we have no way to pay for them. So our city leaders are doing some verbal gymnastics trying to justify this new fee. I’m inclined to agree with you, though. And, in private, I suspect that many of them would too. Street lights are something that have always been covered by taxes. They’ve always been something that we’ve contributed toward collectively. That’s changing now, though, thanks to the efforts of a well-funded campaign on the part of the wealthy. Not just here, but across America. People are demanding flat taxes. They want to pay for what they use. Fuck the greater good. Fuck that old shut-in. This is America. If you want light, buy a Chinese-made flashlight from Walmart. Otherwise shut up. So, yes, this pisses me off. I don’t see a solution, though. America has set its course, and we’re beginning to feel the “trickle down”, like so much piss upon our heads. No more cops. No more fire fighters. Buy a gun and a sprinkler system, if you can afford it. Otherwise, be prepared to die.

        For the record, I reached out to Steve Pierce and Karen Maurer when I was first working on this post. (Both of whom fought against the income tax.) Neither responded.

        At any rate, thank you for continuing to keep this thread alive.

      51. Posted August 17, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        Well, it look like no one wants to join us, Free Free. It’s been about 13 hours, and there hasn’t been a peep.

      52. Corn Con
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

        Nobody eats between 2-5 A.M. Why are stores open?
        And quit calling me Corn Corn.

      53. Shit Hit
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know anyone who shits between 2 A.M and 5 A.M., shut off the water.
        And quit calling me Shit Shit.

      54. Road Rod
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

        You are a complete fool to be driving between 2-5 in the morning, why are we paying to police this!

        And quit calling me Road Road.

      55. Sewer Seer
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

        I completely agree with Shit Hit.
        Don’t you dare call me Sewer Sewer.

      56. Frank Fran
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

        Well, I do some of my best business between 2 A.M. and 5 A.M. Maybe some of you should just mind your own business.

        And don’t even think about calling me Frank Frank.

      57. Bad Brad
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

        O.k., so, like, I’m the dickhead who puked in the Tap Room bathroom last weekend.
        At least I’m not called Bad Bad.

      58. Rad Rand
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

        All right, I can see where you’re going with this, you are trying to make Libertarians look the assholes that they are? Right?
        Oh. fuck it, just don’t call me Rad Rad.

      59. Nick Gillespie
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

        Hey. this is real. Debate me, or shut up.

      60. william
        Posted August 24, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        Why is no one responding to these questions?

      61. noah
        Posted August 26, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        Let’s vote on a new slogan for the city. I suggest “Every man for himself”.

      62. Miley Fan
        Posted August 26, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        I know this is important but aren’t there more important things we could be talking about?

        http://i.imgur.com/aQuJBZy.jpg

      63. Eel
        Posted August 26, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        The reaction shot from the audience was even better.

        http://i.imgur.com/YeyJJue.jpg

      64. Jennifer
        Posted September 17, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

        Saw this in the NY Times about a little town in NY asking its two tax-exempt universities to pay for services, and going so far as to threaten to shut off the water if they didn’t. What are the chances of this “we know you’re tax exempt, but come on…help us out…your tax-exempt footprint is most of our town!” strategy working here?

        http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/nyregion/a-town-gown-clash-over-the-costs-of-public-services.html?pagewanted=1

      65. frenchis
        Posted March 10, 2014 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

        THERE IS AN ANSWER TO THE PROBLEM HOWEVER SINCE WE SEE THE CITY ACTING WITHOUT THE CITIZENS CONSENT : THE SOLUTION FOR ALL CHRISTIANS : TURN YOUR HOMES INTO A HOME CHURCH!! END OF STORY!! MAYBE IF YOU GET ENOUGH OF THEM , THE CITY WILL THINK TWICE BEFORE THEY GO AROUND DOING WHAT THEY DAMN PLEASE!!!
        AFTER YOU ARE TAX EXEMPT AND THE CITY STIL CHARGES YOU, THEN YOU CAN MAKE SURE THE CHURCH AND EMU PAYS THEIR PORTION AS WELL!!!

      66. Posted March 10, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

        We need an ALL CAPS tax!

      2 Trackbacks

      1. [...] kind of beautiful… I know something like this would never fly in Ypsilanti, where we can barely keep our street lights lit at it is, but one does wish that there were a way to incorporate more public art into our lives [...]

      2. [...] we need to work together on solutions… For instance, what if EMU starts contributing toward the street lights which we’re having a difficult time keeping lit? Or, better yet, what if they start contributing toward the policing of the [...]

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