With the city facing big-ticket fire equipment needs in both the short and longer terms, officials are considering tax proposals that they could present to local voters in order to fund these.
In recent days, the city council received a written report from staff, one which details needs for replacing several fire trucks as well as breathing equipment used by firefighters. The report also identifies property-tax funding mechanisms — such as a tax levy targeted specifically for public safety needs, and an override of state-required rollbacks that have been put in place for Petoskey’s property tax rates — that officials could choose from in order to line up funding. Either approach would require local voters’ approval.
On Monday, council members made plans to begin considering the report and the funding options during their next regular meeting on Monday, Oct. 19.
“I thought the report was very well done, just as an aside comment,” said mayor Bill Fraser.
A replacement for the city’s 31-year-old aerial platform fire truck is one shorter-term fire equipment priority that officials have identified. Petoskey Department of Public Safety staff note that the current truck, the only one in Emmet County with a 100-foot aerial device, could be important in fighting a fire at some of the community’s tallest structures. The aging truck has faced some maintenance issues — such as electrical problems — that have taken it out of service from time to time in recent years.
A lack of available replacement parts has precluded the city from fixing some problems with the truck, such as a broken speedometer and broken water tank gauge.
The cost to replace the 1984-model aerial truck with a new unit is projected at $1-1.2 million. By comparison, refurbishing the current truck would involve an estimated expense of about $800,000.
Another fire equipment priority for the near term would involve replacing three other fire trucks — two pumpers and a hose reel truck — that date back to the 1980s and early ’90s. City staff would like to purchase a single new truck that could handle the functions of all three older ones, and this would carry an estimated $450,000 price tag.
City staff also see a need to update the public safety department’s inventory of self-contained breathing equipment used in firefighting, noting that the existing set doesn’t meet National Fire Protection Association Standards for minimum air flow capacity. The department has indicated that it needs to replace 43 of the breathing-air units at a cost of $5,000 each, for a total of $215,000. With public safety staff having secured $133,000 in U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant funding toward this expense, the city’s remaining costs would be about $82,000.
Along with the $1.5-1.7 million in estimated short-term equipment needs, staff propose that city officials begin considering ways to meet some longer-term ones — including replacements of three other fire trucks that likely will be needed by the 2020s or early 2030s.
City staff members have noted that an 18 percent local dip in taxable property values from 2010 to 2012 following a downturn in the real estate market has made it difficult to fund fire equipment replacements and other major capital purchases under the existing property-tax structure. While property values have since begun to rebound, it likely will take many years to regain the lost tax revenues.
If the city opts to pursue a public safety millage, officials say that it could be targeted for either operations or equipment needs, or both. One possible approach offered for council consideration would be to seek voter approval of a public safety levy for a three- to five-year term, structuring it to generate the funds needed for short-term equipment needs. If the city can demonstrate that it uses the proceeds as expected, staff note that voters might then have the confidence to renew the levy to cover longer-term public safety expenses.
The report also offers another tax funding approach for consideration, which would seek voter approval to override the local tax-rate limitations required by the state’s Headlee amendment. Under Headlee, taxing units must reduce their property-tax rates when annual tax growth on existing property exceeds the lesser of 5 percent or the rate of inflation.
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