School Districts Manipulate Headlee Tax Limits for More Money

Districts game the system at taxpayers' expense

An example of a Headlee override ballot.

By law, Michigan school districts are allowed to impose a maximum of 18 mills for operating expenses. So when current school millage authorizations are due to expire, how is it that some districts can ask for more?

St. Joseph Public Schools this year asked for and received a 19.6292 operating millage authorization. Voters in Adrian approved 18.2517 mills. Coldwater Public Schools got approval for 19.234 mills.

“You are correct. We can legally only levy the 18 mills,” said Ben Engelter, former chief financial officer for Coldwater Public Schools, but he explained the higher rate is for “possible reductions.”

“Possible reductions” refers to potential millage rate rollbacks mandated by Michigan’s Headlee Amendment, which voters approved in 1978 to prevent rising property values (and property tax assessments) from increasing government revenues faster than inflation. If this happens, then school districts must cut millage rates by an amount sufficient to keep their actual revenue increases at or below the rate of inflation.

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Alternatively, they can ask voters to allow the extra revenue by waiving these reductions with a “Headlee override" election. However, there is always the chance that voters might deny such a request.

To sidestep that possibility, some districts have taken to asking voters to approve higher “just in case” millage rates in advance. Called “phantom mills” by some, these can even exceed the maximum 18 mills a district can actually levy.

“This new tactic of asking for voters to approve more millage than the government says it will levy strikes me as stretching, if not breaking, the spirit of the Headlee,” said Patrick Anderson, the principle author of a “Headlee Blue Ribbon Commission” report cited by the Michigan Supreme Court in the landmark local tax case, Bolt vs. City of Lansing.

Typically, school operating millages come up for renewal every 10 years. They are invariably approved, since not doing so would result in a huge reduction in funding for local classrooms. In Coldwater, the district exploited this threat to seek an “all or nothing” proposal wrapping the routine renewal request together with the higher rate authorization and an extended 17-year authorization.

For example, on “The Official Coldwater Community Schools Blog,” voters were told if they didn’t approve the renewal, the district “will lose approximately $5.5 million in revenue annually – the equivalent of 57 teachers being laid off.”

Anderson said claims that such proposals are not increases are false: “Voters are authorizing the government to increase their taxes in the future, whenever the government decides it is necessary,”

Wyandotte Public Schools executed a variation on this play by seeking to get the Headlee override upfront in its most recent millage renewal election. Voters were asked to approve 18 mills for operations plus a “just in case” 1-mill Headlee override.

“By having the ability to restore the 18-mill rate without having to conduct an additional election, with the costs associated with running an election, makes good fiscal sense,” Wyandotte Superintendent Catherine Cost said.

She said that it is important to have the cushion in place because Michigan does not replace lost revenue from Headlee overrides.

According to Anderson, such claims of “lost revenue” from Headlee millage rollbacks are misleading. “Headlee does not cut tax revenue,’ Anderson said.

“(It) explicitly allows tax revenue to increase up to the rate of inflation. The actions of the Legislature of raising, lowering, or otherwise changing the school aid or foundation allowance are entirely separate from the Headlee limit on local property tax increases.”

In other words, when districts complain about “cuts” from Headlee, this actually refers to having to forego revenue windfalls that exceed the rate of inflation.

The superintendents of St. Joseph Schools and Coldwater Schools did not respond to emails for comment. Adrian Public Schools Superintendent Robert Behnke said he is new to the role and could not speak on behalf of proponents of the increase.

The 19.234 millage increase in Coldwater angered taxpayer Lance Houck so much, he’s running for the school board.

“It’s just wrong,” says Houck who likens the higher millage to gaming the system. He owns rental property in the district and is directly affected by non-homestead property tax rates.

“It will hurt renters, because landlords have to pass on the extra expense to them,” he said.

Houck is the only candidate on the ballot for three open seats.

Five candidates are running write-in campaigns, including three incumbents, who missed the deadline to have their names placed on the ballot.

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See also:

Anatomy of How to Kill a Tax Hike


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