This past Monday I did something I have never done in my seven years as a resident of Huntington Woods. I went to a city meeting. Why this time? Something motivated me.
Last week we were in Cancun, Mexico. As we do before any trip we put a hold on our mail and have it delivered the day we get back which was last Saturday.
As I start going through the mail, I have a notice from the Oakland County Assessors office saying they are raising my property taxes $91 this year. How lucky am I that my property has appreciated in value!!
And the very next piece of mail was a flyer from the city saying that on March 10th the city will be voting on the Fire Fighters and Police Officers Retirement Act (aka Public Act 345) which authorizes the creation of a millage and thus new funding source for Police and Fire Fighter retirements.
How I understand it is the city wants to get the legacy retirement costs out of the general budget and pay them with a millage. They have no wiggle room due to city charter caps.
And by doing so it would free up money in the general budget to repair city roads which just like the entire State of Michigan need to be fixed.
As I read through the pamphlet I get to the point where if passed what the first year tax bill impacts would be. I’m looking at $400 immediately. Welcome back Brad. That’s another $491 being added to my large summer tax bill in four months. That made me sad.
When we moved into Huntington Woods in 2012 our yearly property taxes were $4582. If passed they would be $5500. A 20% increase. They’re $5009 now.
An informational meeting on Monday was scheduled to talk about it. I decided last minute to go. I felt I understood the pamphlet and was voting no already but I wanted to hear what the city, consultants, and my neighbors had to say.
Over the next 45 minutes we were told from a Pavement Engineer that the roads within the city are rated poorly. And if we dont raise money to address it now, every $1 spent to prevent them falling apart would now be $4-$5. Basically, we can maintain them with a little more money now or its going to be a complete tear down and rebuild which is expensive.
Open For Questions
After the presentation my neighbors started asking questions. Ranging from “we should make roads like how they do in Arizona or Wisconsin” to “the road they fixed in front of my house 4 years ago is already destroyed”.
Then the money questions started coming in. Our city is populated with very mature residents. Out of the 70-ish residents at the meeting I guess there was three other people under the age of 50 (I’m 39.5). Many said “I live on a fixed income and if this goes through it will raise my taxes $400 a year. At that rate I will be priced out of the neighborhood I’ve lived in for 30+ years.”
I was thinking the same thing. We wouldn’t move into Huntington Woods right now. We lucked into buying our home in 2012 for $225k when the real estate market was at its absolute bottom. It was recently appraised for $354k. Yes, we’ve put some money into the house to bring up the value but between the price and taxes we would look elsewhere. And mind you, we have a 1400 sq ft home. Its not big.
The community stays. A large number of people on my street have been here for 20+ years. And because of how long they’ve been here they continue to pay rates under Proposal A. They are not paying property taxes on new values because of it. Stated differently, a large number of residents (50%?) are paying about 65% of the amount in property taxes as new residents. And its putting a strain on the budget.
Something Is Missing
As residents asked questions, the city officials, pavement engineer, and other consultants responded, an uneasiness started to come over me. Something didn’t feel right. Listened to one of my neighbors say his current property tax bill of $13k a year (which got a gasp) would jump to $14k if passed. On and on it went for another 45 minutes.
And then it hit me. The entire time I’ve been sitting here I have not heard one solution on how to address the problem that doesn’t involve raising taxes. Not one.
I started thinking. And thinking. I blanked out in the back row for ten minutes in my own thoughts while more people voiced their concern or approval.
I Raised My Hand
The meeting was ninety minutes in. How can I leave this meeting without asking the question banging around in my head. Because I had not heard anyone from the city or the consultants mention it.
So there I go, up to the podium. Nervous as to what my neighbors were going to say to my comment. And I said this: (Starts at 1:34:20)
Did you see some eye rolls? Did you see some of my neighbors squirm?
That’s right. I asked the Pavement Engineer (Cheryl Gregory) what their estimates would be if the City Of Huntington Woods would ban all cars expect for commercial vehicles.
Do you know where the eye rolls and squirms come from? They come from 10, 20, 30+ years of Marketing from Ford, GM, and Chrysler conditioning us to believe we need a car to make our lives better. And how cars represent freedom. I just hit them with the “This is your brain on drugs” ad from the 80s. That ad got people talking. It is still referenced today. And that was the intent of my comment. To get people talking.
Earlier in the meeting my neighbor who pays $13k a year in property taxes mentioned that on our summer property tax bill there are line items (I looked up my amounts): 2010 City Street ($94.62), 2012 City Street ($85.75), 2014 City Street ($121.90), and 2017 City Street ($47.47). All road millages passed which currently cost me $349.74 annually. If this passes, 5 of the 18 line items (28%) on the summer tax bill will be road related.
Even though the act is called the Fire Fighters & Police Officers Retirement Act it has very little to do with them. Mostly accounting procedures.
Nearly the entire presentation was about roads. My guess is it is a creative way to make us feel bad about not supporting our officers and people will vote yes based on that alone. Knowing how this will be our fifth time in a decade voting on roads this act should be called the 2020 City Street Millage Act. And this increase of $400 will be nearly four times larger than the previous largest increase. I’m going to be looking at $750 annually for roads in our 1 square mile city. Passing road millages isn’t working. This is the definition of insanity.
We are blaming our houses for the roads by passing millages on our property taxes to pay for them. Its like saying each one of our houses lifted itself off its foundation, put on rollerblades, and went for a scoot down Scotia. I can assure you my house has never done that.
What concerns me the most about Mrs. Gregory’s reply is when she said “No. We didn’t run a scenario like that. It would be up to the city to decide if they’d want us to investigate that”.
That says it all. My guess is I’m the first person in a decade, resident or city official, to walk to the podium and say it. Or even suggest it.
It says a lot about how engrained our car first society is. We couldn’t imagine living without a car. Especially not here in the Motor City. But the cars financial burden on our city, county, and state is putting immense strain on everybody.
I’m about to have my property taxes raised $400 a year by my neighbors who don’t see that its not the roads that are the problem. Its their car and how they use it thats the problem. 100%.
To my surprise a few residents asked me if I really did ride my bike through the city. I said yes. Told them about my electric bike that I use to get all around the city and Oakland County. If its over 40 degrees and I have to go two miles or less for an errand (Ace Hardware, Westborn, Berkley Post Office, Rackham with golf clubs on my back, Dinner in Royal Oak, etc.) I take the bike. If its over 25 degrees and no wind or snow Ill take my son to Burton Elementary on the bike. Pretty much, my cars stay in the driveway for most trips in and around the city in Spring, Summer, and Fall.
They said they would ride their bikes more through the city if…you know whats coming…they weren’t so afraid of getting hit by a car. Frowned upon to ride on the sidewalk. Dangerous to ride in the street. Theres not much space for the single greatest and most efficient form of personal transportation in history to be ridden.
I talked with a woman (I believe her name was Helga) who was born in Germany and said “I used to take my kids on bike to school. It was faster than my car. And its great exercise.” Of course she’s German. Efficiency is #1 most importance over there.
And then this happened
You’re An Idiot
“As an Engineer. What I just heard you say was the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. Asking the city to spend more time and resources on an idiotic idea like yours is stupid. I drive 10-30 miles everyday and how the hell am I going to get around. This isn’t Mackinac Island.”
My new friend butts in. Doesn’t say excuse me. Doesn’t introduce himself. Doesn’t say “You know Brad, what you said hit me in the gut and I need to talk it out with you”. Tells me how smart he is and how dumb I am. Then leaves. He probably should have farted in between Helga and I for good measure. I enjoyed it.
There’s so much we need to discuss with what he said. Which I shall do in letter form.
Dear New Friend
Thank you for breaking the stereotype that Engineers are not emotional. Your distaste for my idea was well received through your tone and body language. I feel this was a little harsh due to the fact that I asked for forgiveness (“I’m just throwing it out there” and “FOR FUN”) before asking the city if they’d look at banning cars.
I get it. Banning cars would affect you. But this is a community issue. You came to the community meeting for some reason. It would affect me too. I have two cars. And my wife drives 12 miles to Detroit everyday for work. We would have to make major adjustments too.
Are you telling me an Engineer doesn’t want to see data? I don’t believe it for a second. You guys love data. Time? It looked like Excel. She probably could have opened up her laptop, dropped the daily traffic count by 90%, and the numbers would have adjusted on the fly right in front of us.
We’re not Mackinac Island. You’re absolutely right. Mackinac Island at 4.35 square miles is nearly 3 times larger than Huntington Woods 1.47 square miles. To think our little city couldn’t survive without cars like Mackinac Island’s no car policy is short sighted. You ever see how happy people are on that island not dodging cars in the streets and talking to people. You know, like neighbors would if they weren’t given the option to hide in their car. I’ve been here for 7 years and its rare seeing neighbors outside talking to each other. I know this, because I see it from the bike. And I mix it up with everybody.
Maybe next time I can get your name and we can talk it out.
Its been awhile since I’ve been called an idiot on purpose. Kind of felt good. I challenged somebody’s beliefs so strongly that they went out of their way to tell me how smart they were all while not backing it up with data to explain to me why I am an idiot.
I know what he’s saying. Which is, we live in Metro Detroit where there is no public transportation. Huntington Woods could be Berkley or Oak Park for all purposes. No one works in Huntington Woods. So how the hell are we supposed to get around without a car you jackass. And I would fully agree. Except for the jackass part.
Back at home I thought about what I said and other things I noticed. I started thinking about things I wish I would have said. Mind you, I didn’t decide to go until 20 minutes before the meeting started so I wasn’t prepared.
You can’t see it in the video but when I asked Mrs. Gregory (Pavement Engineer) about banning cars she smiled. And I wish I would have stopped and asked her why. Two things popped into my head.
What I said was hilarious to her. Look at this guy. He’s hilarious. Ban cars? He’s funny.
Orrrrrrrrrr. She knows that after 30 years of being a Civil Engineer designing highways, assessing and planning infrastructure, traffic planning, etc. she knows what I said is 100% the only solution. Or at worst, the best solution. And she knows that there is nothing wrong with the roads and how they are built. Stated differently, the roads have never been built better.
And if we were to play Family Feud with the survey question being “We asked 100 Civil Engineers what is the leading factor in asphalt road deterioration” and I hit the buzzer replying with “Heavy Traffic“…Survey Sayyssss…ding…#1 answer – 97 points. #2. Water – 2 points #3. Detroit Lions (they always mess something up) 1 point.
But no one wants to hear that. And finally someone like me gets it. And says, no, its not the roads, its the gigantic cars we buy and how we use them that are the problem. Something she might have been saying in private for years. And it made her smile.
I really want it to be orrrrrrr. I really do. I put myself out there, got some eye rolls, gasps, and was called an idiot. Its cool. I knew it was coming.
Who’s To Blame?
I really wish I would have been better prepared at the meeting and spent some time researching this a little more. The best case I found on the road debate was on Urban Fort Collins when they compared which road users put the greatest demands on tax dollars. The chart below says it all.
It would take 17,059 trips by bike to equal the damage caused by an average car. My 2004 F150 weighs 5500 pounds. Same as a Chevy Tahoe. It would take 60,979 trips by bike to equal the damage from one trip in my truck.
“So let’s talk about this in terms of taxes. For the sake of argument, let’s say that every 1,000 miles traveled in an average sized car equals $1’s worth of damage to the road that will have to come out of City coffers for repair work. A bicyclist would have to travel over 17 million miles to cause the same $1’s worth of damage. Or another way to look at that, for the $1’s worth of damage that a car does to a road, a bicycle, traveling the same distance on the same road, would perpetrate $0.0005862 worth of damage. That’s about a tenth of a ha’penny.”http://urbanfortcollins.com/greatest-demand-on-tax-dollars/
Mayor Pro Tem Joe Rozell said in the meeting that the #1 email he gets from residents is about the roads. I would start replying with “Dear HW Resident – Yes, the roads need to be fixed. But we have finally determined that the problem isn’t the roads. In fact, they have never been built better. The problem is in fact your car and how you use it within the city.” Send.
We need to go all JFK on ourselves. Ask not what Huntington Woods can do for you – ask what you can do for Huntington Woods.
If This Passes
And I know it will. My neighbors love passing things. I dont think anything has ever not passed. Even with me voting No on 100% of anything that involves raising taxes over the last 7 years. I’m like 0-7. But what must happen after this is the city must enact a car usage fee.
When this passes, roads, stupid roads, will represent 20% of my property taxes. We’re not talking about water and sewer. Roads. Stupid roads. I mean, look at them. Their entire purpose in life is to lay around, do nothing, look ugly, and take a beating.
We Need To Treat The Roads Like The Water
One of my neighbors lives by herself. This past spring we were chatting over the fence and we got on the topic of water bills. We told each other what our water bills were. Mine was 3x as much as hers. Can you guess why? That’s right. Its me, my wife, and my two young kids. We both pay the same water rates but I use 3x as much water so I pay 3x as much.
My same neighbor has a Chevy Malibu. I have a 2004 Ford F150 and a 2019 Ford Fusion Hybrid in my driveway. Here I am deteriorating the city’s roads 3.5x faster with my two vehicles and yet we both pay the same rates to use them. And so does my neighbor around the corner who has five cars. Three of which are large SUVs and two very sweet exotic sports cars.
That’s incredibly unfair to her. She assumes so much more of the roads financial burden of me and my two vehicles and our other neighbors five vehicles. SO MUCH MORE. Wildly unfair. This needs to change. We need to start looking at the roads the same way we look at the water. You take 27 showers a day – you’re gonna pay more. You have five vehicles – you’re gonna pay more.
We Need To Make It Hurt To Own A Car
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say zero of my neighbors want to ban cars. I get it. But we’re done blaming the roads. They’re not the problem. And we’re not going to vote on anything named (Year) City Street Millage ever again. We’re done with that. This is what I propose.
2020 Car Problem Act
Its been determined that our roads are not at fault in the city. It is in fact the citizens cars and how they use them that are causing the roads to deteriorate at increased rates. What the Car Problem Act does is it authorizes the city to contact the Secretary Of State semi-annually and allows them to get a record of every car registered to each address in the city limits. Upon receiving the registrations the city will be enforcing a car usage fee as follows.
1st Car- $100. 2nd Car – $200. 3rd Car – $300. 4th Car – $400. 5th Car – $500
In addition to car usage fees there will be a car weight fee. Its been determined by our civil engineer that the average weighted vehicle in the city is equivalent to a Ford Edge (I’m guessing) at 4000 pounds. At that weight we can maintain the roads but will not be able to get ahead of them deteriorating. Our civil engineer determined if the city’s average weighted vehicle dropped down to 3500 pounds (a nicely optioned Ford Escape) the 500 pounds in difference would double the life span (I’m guessing) of our roads and allow us to get ahead of fixing the roads and pay off old millages. The car weight fee is $5 for every 100 pounds over 3500 pounds.
With 2400 houses in the city with estimates of 2 Ford Edge’s per household we estimate the city would bring in the following.
1st Car – $100. 2nd Car – $200 = $300 per household.
1000 pounds overweight total for both cars/ 100 = 10 units x $5 = $50.
$350 per household x 2400 houses = $840,000 in new annual car usage fees.
At that estimated rate it would cover the $166k the city currently spends on annual road maintenance costs plus the additional $234k needed immediately to get our roads out of the Poor category. The remaining $440k ($840k – $400k for repairs) will immediately be used on all city roads to get our OCI (Overall Condition Index) from its current poor rating of 5.03 to an excellent rating of 8.2 (just throwing #’s out) as soon as possible.
Upon reaching the 8.2 index the city will go back to normal maintenance costs of $166k until the OCI hits 7.5 upon which time we will spend the necessary funds to get back to 8.2. During the times between 8.2 and 7.5 we will direct all left over funds of $674k ($840k – $166k) towards bulk payments of past City Streets Millages. Its our estimate that we could have all past millages paid off within the next ___ years (12 years?) which in turn would reduce all residents property tax bills.
After those past millages are paid off we will direct half of the car usage fees after maintenance costs as a credit towards residents property tax bills and put the remaining balance in the cities investment account.
I see no other fair way then my 2020 Car Problem Act. I’m sure my numbers are off in some places and you’ll have to excuse me for that. I did my best to go through the presentation where they showed charts with expenses and estimates. But work with me here.
I would pay: $300 for two cars. 2004 Ford F150 Super Cab weight = 5500 pounds. 2019 Ford Fusion Hybrid weight = 3700 pounds. 5500 + 3700 = 9200 pounds. 9200 – 7000 (two 3500 pound cars) = 2200 pounds overweight / 100 pounds = 22 units x $5 = $110 weight tax.
$300+$110 = $410 Car Problem Tax for me
Let me repeat this internet. I would pay more under my scenario then I would with the millage. Its just $10, but its more.
$410 x 2400 houses = $984,000. I think this is closer to reality than the $840k number above.
And yes, we would make exceptions. Like, the Plumbers and Electricians who park their work van. Maybe 50% off the weight. And no fees at all for our disabled neighbors wheelchair van. For those that don’t have a car maybe a minimum $10 Car Problem Fee as we know UPS, FedEx, and Jets Pizza is visiting their house over the year.
As I brainstormed and typed it out I started to wonder why this sort of thing isn’t already in place. Its wildly fair. Don’t like the fees? Sell a car. Don’t like the weight costs? Sell your Cadillac Escalade and get the Ford Escape. Rent a F150 from Enterprise for that one time a year you go up north for a ski trip.
Outside of the city allowing the roads to be dug up and 400 new houses be built where they used to be (No roads = No road problems) I see no other fair way to address the road problem.
This is the sort of thing I would break my streak of voting no for and vote yes for. Technically I’m not raising my taxes at all. I have the opportunity to get rid of all of my cars and pay nearly $0. I hold 100% POWER of whats in my driveway. Under the current system it doesn’t matter whats in my driveway or even if there is nothing in my driveway and I hold ZERO POWER of the costs.
We have to change peoples car buying and clown car like habits. We need to start looking at the roads the same way we look at the water. As a utility. We need to treat the roads as if they were made out of gold. Do you want to mess up a gold road? Do you want gold flakes scraping off and blowing into the wind as you drive over? If you’re ok with that then you need to pay.
What Is A Vehicle?
I shared this post in the Huntington Woods Facebook group. One of my neighbors got me pretty good. He suggested I should start a Hall & Oates Libertarian band. Well played. That was pretty good.
In his comment though he brought up a good point. Something I missed. Which is why I shared the post. To get people talking. He asked the question “What is a vehicle”. And asked if a horse was a vehicle. Or even if my electric bike was a vehicle. Or motorcycle. Well played.
It has to be yes. We’d have to make up some sort of “comparative road damage” fee chart and charge accordingly. Like, $.25 a year for a bike. $3 for a moped. $5 for a motorcycle. $10 for a horse. My gut tells me we’d have to treat any items that are not registered with the Secretary of State like the dog license so the police could identify them in the event of it being lost or stolen.
Legal Mumbo Jumbo
My understanding of the city’s reasoning behind doing this is the city’s charter has millage caps for things like the roads. If they can make the retirement obligations into a line item and not apart of the general fund then it frees up the cap again which they can now use on the roads. At least that’s how I understand it. All millages must be voted on.
I’m curious about Fees. I couldn’t find anything saying the city couldn’t just introduce “Driveway Fees” without a vote by residents. Similar to the city’s 25 different fees they can charge a homeowner for things they do to their property. My favorite being the $925 Pool Demolition fee. The city might be able to get around a vote all together on my 2020 Car Problem Act.
**Update 3-7-2020** – After sharing the post on the Huntington Woods Facebook Group, reading neighbors comments, and looking at the pamphlet again I have more questions.
What happens after this passes? It moves the retirement obligations into a separate millage and frees up money in the general budget. Ok. Fine. The pamphlet says $800k would move off the general budget and free that money up for the $565k increase in road expenses.
What about an economic downturn? We bought our house 8 years ago for $125k less than what I could sell it for today. What if it drops back down to that in two years? My property taxes would (should) drop 20%. Where’s the money going to come from now? The retirement fund would be taken care of but what about the city’s budget? Thats a huge hit.
The city is admitting in the pamphlet that we are up against city charter caps today. Think about that. As I understand that, there is no room to raise taxes (at least on the roads) for as long as Huntington Woods is a city. Like, forever. Unless there is a charter amendment or something. How I interpret that is “we’ve taxed ourselves as much as we can tax ourselves.” We are in “alternative strategy” mode right now. That’s not good.
This millage frees the budget up now. But what about in two years when the other roads that are not included in the proposal go from poor to a complete rebuild. Are we going to be in the same spot? Stated differently, we tax ourselves now to open up an opportunity to tax ourselves in the future.
The pamphlet says they plan to get the roads up to “good” within the first three years. I don’t doubt that. But there were neighbors at the meeting that said the road that was fixed in front of their house four years ago is already destroyed.
My gut is telling me that all this does is kick the can down the road. No pun intended. Roads fall apart. Costs go up. Electric cars are about to be everywhere and they are heavier than gas cars. I see Tesla’s in our city already. If they didn’t run a scenario with banning cars then I doubt they ran a scenario with everybody owning an electric car. A Tesla Model S weighs nearly 5000 pounds. Thats almost as much as my truck. The Tesla Model 3 weighs 4000 pounds. The average weighted vehicle is pacing to go up even in smaller cars.
I get this feeling that I am going to be receiving a pamphlet in the mail within the next three years saying how the city wants to raise the millage cap back up to the max (where we’re at now) so they can fix the roads again. Which will pass again.
What happens after that? Like, in six years when the roads will need to be fixed again. But we are capped out again and there are no “alternative strategies” left?
That meeting won’t be at City Hall. It will be at the Rec Center because its not going to have 70 people there. Its going to have 700 people. Because the city is going to say “to fix the roads we are going to have to close the rec center, the pool, the library, etc.” They said at the meeting how they’ve made cuts across the board already. Think about that. I would hate to be on city council and leading that meeting.
At some point we will have to address our cars. Because the only reason we have the roads is for the cars.
I’m A Firm No
I was a no before going to the meeting. I’m a firm no now. I vote no on everything because I cant picture myself walking around the backyard this summer with a beer in my hand chatting up my neighbors over the fence and have to respond when they say “did you see your summer tax bill go up $400.”
I couldn’t look them in the face and say I voted yes. Maybe they could. But the first feeling I get is how incredibly rude of me to take $400 out of their pockets to buy asphalt when recent history tells me we are going to be having the same discussion in two years. There are 30 houses on my street. That’s $12,000 on roads. All because I wouldn’t change my car driving or car purchasing habits.
I just don’t like adding more costs to property tax bills. Especially ones that could be handled separately. If this passes, there will be 400 to 500 more reasons for a visit from the Oakland County Sheriff if you don’t pay your house usage fees (property taxes). That’s what happens if you do not pay your house usage fees. You are removed from your property by the Sheriff. I prefer giving them the least possible amount of reasons.
This isn’t me hating on cars. I like cars. I grew up in Metro Detroit. Its apart of me. Old Top Gear and the Grand Tour are my favorite TV shows. My Dad worked for Ford. My Uncles worked for GM. I cant deny though that its the car thats causing so many problems in our state.
Its a lose lose situation for me here in Huntington Woods. We need public transportation in Metro Detroit desperately. I grew up in Sterling Heights. I know what its like to have to drive everywhere. We decided to live in this area so we wouldn’t have to use a car as much. Or at least be close to jobs, airport, and entertainment so we wouldn’t spend an hour driving to everything.
But I’ve voted No on the Regional Transit Authority Plan for SE Michigan because if I vote yes I’m going to raise my taxes hundreds of dollars a year for that all while having to take my chances on future road millage increases which recent history is showing its a near certainty.
If I’m on the City Commission I am tabling this vote and looking into “The Brad Line” and the “2020 Car Problem Act”. The way I see it is “The Brad Line” would be a goal. And what the 2020 Car Problem Act does is end the debate. Each property owner now has a decision as to how much financial burden they are going to assume to use the city’s roads. There will hopefully never be a need for a meeting or emails sent to city officials about the roads ever again.
I’m sure I’m missing some items in my projections but I see no other way. It has to hurt to own a car in Huntington Woods.
Before you blast me in the comment section fellow resident I want you to remember that I am asking you to work with me. I’m brainstorming. Something I saw zero of at the meeting and zero of in the suggestion slide in the presentation from the city’s brainstorming committee. Our Mayor is for passing the act and suggests $500 is not a lot of money. He’s right. ITS A TON OF MONEY!!!
Giving one more dollar to road funding without brainstorming solutions that do not involve raising taxes or directing the roads financial burden to each individual household is equivalent to taking all the money that the act and new bond would raise, calling up the MGM Sports Book in Las Vegas and putting it all on the Detroit Lions to win the Super Bowl. “Ummmm yes, we will gladly accept your bet”.
Now about those Fire Fighters and Police Officers…