- Associated Press - Monday, December 7, 2015

The Detroit News. Dec. 4, 2015

Put priority on fixing Detroit tax system.

Despite the progress Mayor Mike Duggan has made in fixing some of Detroit’s property tax issues, problems with tax policies and practices persist, hindering the full revitalization of neighborhoods and preventing the city from capturing revenue needed to support public services.

The city must focus more intensely on fixing a dysfunctional system that has contributed to high delinquency rates and the loss of residents.

That includes, among other measures, making sure assessments realistically reflect the value of property, stepping up collection efforts and offering smart, effective tax abatements that ensure the burden is spread more fairly across categories of property, including government properties that are currently tax-exempt. Those recommendations are included in a recent report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Duggan slashed home assessments after taking office by 5 to 20 percent, which helped. But more needs to be done. According to the report, Detroit’s assessments still need to be reduced by as much as 70 percent in some categories.

In 2010, the institute found, assessed values were about five times the sales prices, according to the report. That gap has closed under Duggan’s measures, but remains out of whack.

Further, the assessments are inequitable. Assessments of lower-priced properties vary more than higher-priced properties, leading to resentment and refusal to pay by some residents, as well as a barrage of appeals to the Michigan Tax Tribunal. The tribunal heard 3,015 appeals of residential property assessments from Detroit property owners in 2012, according to the report.

In addition, city government is short-staffed, and assessors rely on outdated data and processing systems to do their work.

Detroit also has a problem physically collecting tax revenue. A Detroit News investigation in 2013 found that nearly half of the owners of Detroit’s properties failed to pay their taxes in 2012. That amounted to $246.5 million in uncollected taxes and fees, some of which was due to the city, some to Wayne County, Detroit public schools, and the library.

And the number isn’t improving; in 2014, 54 percent of taxpayers were delinquent.

Detroiters pay the highest property tax rates in Michigan. Even if residents paid no taxes to the city, they would still face a property tax rate above the statewide average just from levies to support the public library, Detroit Public Schools and Wayne County.

Additionally, almost 20 percent of Detroit’s land area contains parcels that are partially or totally exempt from property taxes - more than 11 percent of total assessed land value. Exempt parcels include government buildings - educational, cultural and city government buildings, as well as - cemeteries, religious buildings, and medical centers.

But Detroit’s dysfunctional tax system will continue to discourage people from moving into the city, or staying, and investing in property, and will encourage delinquency in tax payments. Faster progress must be made in getting the process right.

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The Lansing State Journal. Dec. 4, 2015

MSU’s success unites the state.

It’s only a football game, being played by 18- to 24-year-old men. Yet the Spartans’ successful run to the Big Ten Championship game is a rallying point for East Lansing, Greater Lansing and the state of Michigan. Even Gov. Snyder, a University of Michigan alum, has dubbed today “Spartan Green Day” in advance of Saturday night’s game.

Couple the football team’s success with the Michigan State men’s basketball team, undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the nation, and it’s easy being green.

This is a magical time for MSU sports. And for its fans. As LSJ columnist Graham Couch wrote, this high-level success won’t last forever. MSU fans should cherish it. The national exposure is good for the university and surrounding communities.

Whether you’re part of the large contingent heading down to Indianapolis or going to a watch party locally, celebrate responsibly. Fans should add to the Spartans’ championship experience, not detract from it.

So gear up, have fun and Go Green.

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The Battle Creek Enquirer. Dec. 3, 2015.

What’s your take?

Moody’s Investors Service downgraded 47 of Michigan’s 206 school districts this week, which means that the schools will now face higher fees when borrowing money.

That’s a problem for a lot of Michigan districts, sinking under collapsing enrollment, per-pupil state funding stuck at 2009 levels and pension funding pressures

The Detroit News notes that the report also singles out charter schools as a contributing factor and predicts that it will “stir cries to limit the growth of charter schools, as it has in Detroit.”

“But the answer to a financial crisis brought on in considerable part by the academic failure of school districts should not be to trap more children in those failing schools.

“As Gov. Rick Snyder prepares to introduce legislation restructuring DPS, he has to stick to the commitment to not only address the debt and deficit, but to also push the schools to improve classroom performance.

“Simply limiting access to charters will not stem the enrollment decline in Detroit or elsewhere. Parents who can’t find quality schools in the city will move to the suburbs, as they have been for decades.”

What about you? Do you believe that charters unjustly undermines the viability of public education for all children, or a healthy alternative that forces schools to improve or perish? Should charter schools be limited to improve public schools districts’ finances? Do you have another solution?

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The Traverse City Record-Eagle. Dec. 3 2015

Voters deserve chance to decide tall-buildings issue.

Some decisions are simply too important to be clouded by legal gray areas and subjected to the whims small groups of elected officials.

And Traverse City’s ongoing debate over proposals to allow construction of 100-foot-tall buildings downtown is one such situation.

It’s a fight that went to court Monday when lawyers filed a lawsuit on behalf of supporters of a ballot measure that would allow the city’s voters to decide whether to strike language from the zoning code that allows officials to grant exceptions to rules that cap building heights in some areas at 60 feet. Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers will hear arguments Friday afternoon from the plaintiffs, the city’s lawyer and possibly lawyers representing the developer.

The plaintiffs want the judge to order city commissioners to pause the approval process for the Pine Street One development - a proposed project that includes construction of two nine-story buildings on property at the corner of Pine and West Front streets - until after voters can weigh in on a referendum that would change the zoning code.

They also asked the judge to order City Clerk Benjamin Marentette to accept 750 valid petition signatures the group submitted to place the issue on a March ballot. Marentette disqualified the signatures last month on a technicality in the city’s charter and later rejected corrected affidavits the group submitted.

Both are reasonable requests, not because Traverse City’s future skyline should include taller or shorter structures, but because the issue is too important to be tainted by uncertainty.

The property owners’ request for city officials to issue a special land use permit for the project that allows them to construct structures up to 100 feet tall - an exception the city’s zoning code allows city commissioners to grant - struck a nerve.

Dozens of city residents with opinions on both sides of the issue turned out at a November planning commission meeting to weigh in with comments on the issue that sometimes became heated. Planning commissioners, following hours of public comment, recommended the city commission approve the exception. And commissioners are scheduled to hear public comments and make a decision on the special permit Monday night at their meeting.

But what’s the hurry?

There is no doubt a three-month delay will cost the developers, but the long-term benefits represented by the referendum outweigh the short-term costs for one property owner. And the developers previously delayed the approval process themselves when they pulled and about a month later resubmitted their application.

A decisive result at the polls will insert stability into the decision commissioners face with not only the Pine Street One development, but all future developments in the small downtown district where the exceptions are allowed.

It’s a short pause for an issue too important for a rush judgment.

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