Grand Rapids to fight lawsuit over tax ballot proposal

Grand Rapids, Mich. (WZZM) The City of Grand Rapids says it will fight a lawsuit filed by a group seeking to stop a millage vote in early May.

Mike Farage is part of a group called The Grand Rapids Taxpayers Association. He says the election is not legal because the city failed to submit the question to the clerk's office 68 days before the vote on May 6th. "You have to follow the law period," says Farage. "It starts with the public officials that we elect." Farage says filing the lawsuit is the right thing to do.

The GR Taxpayers Association is asking the judge to remove the proposal from the ballot. In a written statement Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said, "We remain confident we have complied with applicable election law but it is clear that technical issues require legal clarification." The mayor says the ballot question is important to decide sooner rather than later, "We scheduled this election to decide the very important question about fixing our streets and sidewalks. Our city has worked too hard on our transformation and come too far as a community to risk any confusion over the administrative aspects of election filing," the mayor said.

The city is asking voters to extend a temporary 15 percent income tax increase approved 5 years ago for another 15 years. Voter turnout is historically lower in May. "Why would they want to have it in May when there is likely to be a lower turnout,' questions Farage. "I think history reveals, for tax increases, those voters who will vote yes, tend to come out more."

The Taxpayers Association also contends the city might not need a 15 year tax increase to fix roads if it didn't have such a heavy retirement and health care obligation. In 2010, when the tax increase proposed initially, City Manager Greg Sundstrom admitted there was a problem with pensions and he needed five years to fix the problem. "Our pension system is a burden," Sundstrom said four years ago. "It's unacceptable but I can't change it overnight." He asked citizens to place confidence in the city and fix the problem.

Now, nearly 5 years later, Farage says the city is asking to saddle citizens with a long term tax, "This is a lifetime tax to based on to our kids and grand kids on and on."

Heartwell says the election was scheduled based on the recommendation of the Sustainable Streets Task force. The group determined the money would help help fix our streets, and return them to 70-percent fair or good condition in that time.

In his statement, Mayor Heartwell said "We have much work to be done and can't afford to waste a minute."

A circuit court judge will consider the lawsuit next week. If removed from the ballot, the city would then have time to put the question to voters in August or November.


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