The shots rang out in the Village of Sand Lake, but they haven’t been from a gun. Instead, warring parties on the future of the town have fought the battle in the newspaper, on TV, at the village council meetings, on the street, and in the bar and restaurants.
On Tuesday, August 3, the battle will be over. That’s when the village residents will vote on whether the village should disincorporate, and become governed by Nelson Township.
The petition, introduced by village planning commissioners Brenda Ridgeway and Diane Comstock, has been a bone of contention among residents, with many wanting to keep the independence of the village, and others wanting to do whatever it takes to lower their taxes.
At issue is the 14.6261 mills the villagers pay for operational expenses. One mill generates $10,474, for a total of $152,600. The other taxes they pay—another 3.95 mills for road debt, Nelson Twp. taxes, library taxes, school and county taxes—would all stay the same if they disincorporate.
Services, however, would not.
Nelson Twp. Supervisor Glen Armstrong said that if they disincorporate, the township would need to start from scratch to negotiate any contracts the village held—if they decided to continue them. The fire department is one example. Sand Lake Fire and Rescue currently serves Sand Lake, part of Nelson Township, Ensley Township, and Pierson. He said that those townships are concerned about loss of the department, and he doesn’t know yet what they would do about that. Armstrong said that the only compensation they would get is Sand Lake’s piece of state revenue sharing to offset expenses. “And that’s not even enough to fund a fire department,” he said.
Also gone would be the police force—the police chief and several part time officers. Coverage would revert to the Kent County Sheriff Department. Currently they have only three officers that patrol north of 10 Mile. Armstrong said he met with them, and they would love for Nelson to buy another officer if disincorporation happened. That could result in a special assessment for Sand Lake citizens.
The roads would be taken over by Kent County, who would only plow the main roads. Toni Bush, one of the residents voting for disincorporation, said she thinks business owners could get together and have someone plow the alleys between businesses. “I haven’t confirmed it, but I can’t imagine that if they could save $1,000 they wouldn’t do it,” she said. However, other things the DPW does would disappear—care of the park, cemetery, etc.
Water and sewer could go to either Kent County or Nelson Township. Village trustee Dave Dewey said that if that if Kent County oversees it, rates would most likely go up. “They would probably create an enterprise fund to build up money for emergencies,” noted Dewey. “It’s expensive to borrow government money for 40 years.” He noted that they have one of the lowest rates around – about $53.00 per quarter. But he said they would go up after the lagoon work is finished, since the USDA rural development decided that their median income allowed them to pay a higher rate.
Sand Lake has had the highest foreclosure rate on property in Kent County, and some proponents for disincorporation have used that statistic to prove taxes are too high. “Blaming the village for foreclosure rates is like blaming the repossession of a car on the state sales tax being too high,” said Dewey.
He remarked that 18 mills looks huge. “But when you look at the total value it’s puny compared to the services we offer,” he explained. He said that about 4 dozen out of 185 homes have taxable values of $30,000 or less, and only two dozen have values of $50,000 or more. “Some only generate a few hundred dollars in tax revenue,” he said.
No other village in Michigan has ever voted to disincorporate, and this year there are two. The village of Emmett in St. Clair county has the same issue on the ballot. Caledonia tried it, but didn’t reach the 2/3 majority vote. Sparta researched the issue, and decided against it a few years ago. This means that there are a lot of unknowns on how to handle the issue.
Besides the fact that Nelson will not assume any of Sand Lake’s debt, there is only one other thing they know for sure will happen if the petition passes. “The lawyers will make out well,” said Armstrong.