Vote NO on the KISD Millage Tax Increase

On May 2, voters in the Kent Intermediate School District will be asked to decide whether or not to approve a 0.9 mill increase to their property taxes for 10 years. The tax means that the homeowner of $100,000 of taxable property will pay an addition $900 over the length of the tax. Of course, we will be asked to renew it in ten years which will be billed not as a tax increase but simply a renewal that won’t raise your taxes at all.

Kent County Taxpayers Alliance recommends a NO vote on this measure because of the following:

  • There is no significant shortage of school funding to our schools in Kent County. Per-pupil spending from 2012-2015 has increased in all but three school districts. The increases average 10.58%.
  • Superintendent salaries are far outside of the range of most working and professional families in Kent County. Aside from Kent City schools, all heads of the school systems make at $183,000 per year with the superintendents of Grand Rapids, Rockford, Forest Hills, and KISD making $329,000, $297,000, $281,000, and $258,000 respectively.
  • That Grand Rapids superintendent pay of $329,000 is a 37% increase over the 2012 pay of $240,000.
  • The tax will be unevenly distributed between the school districts as those districts with higher property values may end up providing far more tax revenue than they receive back for their district.
  • The school districts have been engaging in propaganda which we feel is inappropriate and against the spirit of the state election laws. This video produced with taxpayer money minimizes the cost to homeowners while pointing out an imaginary shortfall of inflationary funding. The “funding gap” cited is from an organization hired to prove funding gaps and put pressure on legislators to spend more on education. Proponents of this tax increase should not be able to use public sources to pay for support and should use the usual campaign finance process that everyone else has to use.
  • Affordable housing is in short supply in Kent County and increasing property taxes will make it even harder for struggling working families, refugees, and young adults to find a place to call home.

Our belief at KCTA is that the school districts are proposing too large a request of taxpayers at a time when schools have not done an adequate job of controlling costs at the administrative level. The tax also is an inefficient way to fund school districts as there will undoubtedly be net losers and winners in this tax scheme since property values vary so much between districts across Kent County.

We urge you to vote NO May 2 on the KISD tax hike. Please distribute this fact sheet to your friends and family and share on social media.

SB 571 Would End Taxpayer-Funded Electioneering

Governor Snyder is currently considering whether to sign SB 571, which would, in part, prohibit local governments from engaging in electioneering prior to a tax issue appearing on the ballot. While many municipalities have come out against this bill, the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance is supporting it because we have seen an increasing number of situations where local governments are flouting the state’s campaign finance laws.

One recent and glaring example is in August of 2014, when the City of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Public Schools published, in their newsletter sent to every household in the city, an “editorial” from Mayor Heartwell expressly advocating a yes vote on Proposal 1 from that year. The newsletter, available here, attempts to get around the campaign finance law by claiming that its express advocacy is merely an opinion and not a piece of campaign literature. The City of Grand Rapids has taken the position that it may engage in any electioneering at all as along as it is part of the city’s regular newsletter. The newsletter, paid for with city funds, and excerpted at right, clearly uses language prohibited by the campaign finance act when it says “We urge you to vote YES on Proposal 1 August 5!”

SB 571 is badly needed to counter this behavior. This is but one example of local governments getting more and more bold with spending significant sums on advertisements just around election time. These thinly veiled election ads aren’t simply about informing voters or publishing non-biased information on an upcoming tax issue; they are campaign ads, plain and simple.

Another example is the below television ad published by the Grand Rapids Public Schools just before a bond election last year.

Local governments should be prohibited from engaging in this type of election activity. Supporters of local tax issues should be required to create a campaign committee and file campaign finance reports, just like everyone else. SB 571 would address this issue and level the playing field.

One Year Later: The Rapid’s Silver Line Bus Route is a Bust

It’s been nearly a year since the $40 million Rapid Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line opened for business, so we thought it would be a good time to check up on how things are going.

In short, it’s a disaster:

  • Since the Silver Line entered service, The Rapid has been losing ridership
  • The Rapid is now losing millions operating the Silver Line
  • No new economic development has been caused by the Silver Line

Read the full article on our ITP Watch web site.

KCTA Opposes Proposition 1, State Sales Tax Hike

Statewide Proposition 1, which will be on the ballot Tuesday, May 5, will amend Michigan’s constitution to enact a permanent sales tax increase from 6% to 7%, a 17% increase. The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance opposes this constitutional amendment because much of the money being raised is not going to roads at all, but other government entities.

“This is a general tax increase, not a road tax,” said Dr. Eric Larson, president of KCTA. “The state doesn’t need another tax hike of $2 billion a year.”

While proponents refer to the tax increase as one for about $1.3 billion for roads, the passage of the ballot question would trigger other tax increases as well, such as higher gas taxes and higher car and truck registration fees. Only about 60% of the total tax increase would go to roads, while the rest would be spread amongst other local governments, in order to garner their support for the issue.

“We see local bureaucrats promised additional funding if the constitutional amendment passes,” said Dr. Larson, “and now they’re spending tax money to campaign in favor of a tax increase. It’s inappropriate and insulting to voters.”

KCTA encourages those who wish to help with defeating this proposal to contact the organization formed to oppose the issue, Protect Michigan Taxpayers.

How fast will The Rapid’s Silver Line bus be?

According to data from The Rapid, the average speed of the new Silver Line bus rapid transit (BRT) route in Grand Rapids will be about 17 miles per hour. Peter Varga, the head of The Rapid bus system, says that the speed will be about 22 miles per hour along Division and about 10 miles per hour on the rest of its route. Despite the usage of the term bus “rapid” transit, this is only slightly faster than the average bus that The Rapid operates, and is slower than about a quarter of its existing routes.

Read our entire article here.

KCTA calls on Grand Rapids city leaders to avoid the appearance of impropriety

KCTA_logo_2014-01Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance called on Grand Rapids city leaders to take a stand against the appearance of impropriety in regards to the upcoming city income tax increase election on May 6. According to an article in the Grand Rapids Press, the campaign urging a “yes” vote is largely funded by private companies that appear set to gain significant revenue from the city if the tax increase passes.

“We believe that the Grand Rapids city commission should stand up and show that they reject any appearance of impropriety by passing a resolution barring any company that contributes to their tax increase campaign from bidding on city projects that result from the tax increase,” said Eric Larson, spokesperson of the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance.

Of the over $23,000 that the “yes” campaign has raised, nearly two thirds was raised from companies that appear to stand to directly benefit from the city’s proposed spending plan, including construction, lobbying, and engineering firms.

“Millions of dollars of spending is on the line,” said Larson, “and it’s only right for city leaders to distance themselves from appearing to reward those who donate to political campaigns. Taxpayers need to be confident that the process isn’t corrupted.”

KCTA also notes that City Commissioner Walt Gutowski, who owns Swift Printing and voted in favor of putting the issue on the ballot, is directly and personally benefiting from the “yes” campaign. More than $6,500 has been spent with his company for campaign materials by those favoring passage of the tax increase.

Tips for appealing your 2014 property tax assessment

Michigan homeowners have the right to appeal their assessments to the local board of review if they feel the assessment is incorrect. It is important to note that many review boards meet in March, but dates vary by each municipality, so be sure to contact your local assessor. Newly-enacted legislation requires the assessment notice to be mailed out at least 14 days before your local board of review meets.

The property tax appeal process has a very tight window and each municipality does things slightly differently. For instance, in the City of Grand Rapids, you must first submit the attached form to the Assessor’s Office for an Assessor’s Review. The deadline this year is February 14, 2014. The Assessor may accept or reject your appeal, at which time you can request a meeting with the March Board of Review. If you’re not happy with the March Board of Review result, you may appeal to the Michigan Tax Tribunal.

Download KCTA’s 2014 property tax assessment appeal guide.

Steps for Appealing

  1. Immediately contact your city, village, or township assessor’s office and ask about their assessment appeal process. They may have a form for you to fill out and they will tell you their submission deadlines. These deadlines are very strict, so you must have your form submitted before the deadline. Simply mailing before the deadline does not count.
  2. Obtain a copy of your property tax worksheet or appraisal card. This is available from the local assessor’s office. The worksheet lists information such as size of house, style, number of baths, etc. Ask the assessing department to fully explain how to read the document. You may also obtain worksheets for similar properties which recently sold in the area to help determine the value of your property. Many cities put this information online.
  3. Carefully check the worksheet for errors. If you notice any errors, the assessor may agree to change some of the information or figures at that time. If not, you will have to make your case with the board of review. Your worksheet may include a “percent good” calculation which shows how much your home has depreciated. For example, a 10-year-old house may be listed as 90 percent good. Percent good is another factor to use when comparing your home to other homes.
  4. Check with your local assessor regarding your home’s taxable value. For property tax year 2011, the inflation rate multiplier is equal to the ratio of fiscal year 2010 average consumer price index divided by the fiscal year 2009 average consumer price index. Again, as a result of Proposal A (and therefore under the State Constitution), a property’s taxable value cannot increase by more than the increase in the U.S. consumer price index or 5 percent, whichever is less. In addition, a property’s taxable value cannot exceed its state equalized value.
  5. Inspect the inside of your home. As noted in Step 3, the “percent good” is the way an assessor depreciates the value of a home based on its age, meaning normal issues common to older homes are not considered in the specifics of the assessment. However, problems not associated with general aging, such as a cracked foundation or wall construction problems, should be specifically addressed in your appeal. Written repair estimates and photographs of structural damage are good evidence of defects which could affect property value.
  6. Note changes to your neighborhood. Realtors say location is the single most important feature in determining the value of your home. If you live near a major road or in a mixed-use zoning area, for example, your home may be less desirable than the same home in a purely residential neighborhood. If the characteristics of your neighborhood have changed, obtain copies of citizen complaints about excessive noise or eyesores and show this evidence to the board.
  7. If you recently purchased or refinanced your home, determine whether your purchase price or your appraisal is lower than two times your SEV. Providing this documentation to the board of review does not guarantee a lower assessment, but it will help strengthen your case.
  8. Inform your assessor about personal property included in the sale price of your home and detailed on the purchase agreement. One of the most common mistakes home buyers can make is to fail to inform the assessor of personal property and other valuable items included in the sale and detailed on the purchase agreement. Personal property items often included in a home’s sale price, such as furniture, curtains, a washer or dryer, etc., are exempt from assessment. If you did not inform your assessor in writing about these items, your assessment may erroneously include this value.
  9. Compare your property to similar homes in the area, especially those that recently sold. Comparable property assessments are one of the most important tools when appealing your property assessment. If comparable properties are assessed lower than yours, your home may be over-assessed. Check the assessed value, type of house, and zoning. Compare the true cash value per square foot. Keep in mind that comparisons should only be made between similar types of homes. (Compare two stories with two stories, ranch houses with other ranch houses, etc). An excellent online tool for looking at homes that recently sold in your area is available on the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors web site at and click on “Find Prices of Recently Sold Homes!”
  10. Either write a letter to the assessor or use the form they provide. A sample appeal letter is attached.

Also view the City of Grand Rapids assessor’s appeal form.

New Kent County Open Government Project web page released; compare tax rates, schools, and transparency

Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance announced the release of its completely revitalized Kent County Open Government Project (KCOGP) web site. This site allows residents of Kent County to compare local tax rates, school district performance, and local government transparency. It also allows anyone to create and print out a Freedom of Information Act request to any unit of local government in the county.

“We’re very excited to release our Kent County Open Government Project web site,” said Jeff Steinport, spokesperson for the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance. “The new features are beyond anything we’ve seen for any taxpayer organization in Michigan. We’re proud of the hard work that went into the site and we know that it will be very useful for all Kent County residents.”

The new site, available at, allows anyone to view the tax rates for each township, village, and city in the county, as well which school districts overlap each local unit of government. This, combined with the ability to compare school district performance, allows residents to find the best schools at the lowest cost.

For instance, the KCOGP web site allows users to find the school district with the highest graduation rate in the county – Caledonia Community Schools. When the user views the details of that school district, the municipalities that overlap it can be compared according to tax rate. The lowest local tax rate in the Caledonia Community Schools District is Lowell Township, with the 77th lowest taxes in the county (out of 93 local taxing units).

The Kent County Open Government Project also rated each local unit of government in 24 areas of transparency, ranking them on how open they are and how much information they make available to taxpayers online. Each unit of government was ranked with a letter grade. The highest-ranking government in the county was the City of Wyoming, with a raw score of 22 and a letter grade of A. The lowest ranking local government was a tie between the Village of Sand Lake and the Village of Casnovia, both with a very poor score of 3 and a letter grade of F.

Some interesting statistics available on the Kent County Open Government Project web site include:

  • The highest taxes in the county are in the part of the City of Grand Rapids that overlaps Forest Hills Public Schools, with an average tax bill of $3,403 each year;
  • The lowest taxes in the county are in the part of Solon Township that overlaps Tri County Area Schools, with an average tax bill of $1,466 each year;
  • The school district with the highest graduation rate is Caledonia Community Schools, with a 95.11% graduation rate;
  • The school district with the lowest graduation rate is Grand Rapids Public Schools, with a graduation rate of 44.56%;
  • Wayland Union Schools spends the most per pupil in the county, spending $17,268 each;
  • Tri County Area Schools spends the least per pupil in the county, spending $9,387 each.

Sweetheart transfer of 160 tax-foreclosed properties to the taxpayer-funded Kent County Land Bank Authority by the City of Grand Rapids is bad for taxpayers and bad for city government

The Grand Rapids City Commission is due to vote this week on transferring more than 160 tax-foreclosed properties to the Kent County Land Bank Authority. This is a bad move for both taxpayers and for the City of Grand Rapids.

The Kent County Land Bank Authority, a taxpayer-funded real estate speculation entity, was formed by the Kent County Commission in 2011, but it began aggressively requesting special treatment from local government units last year in acquiring tax-foreclosed properties at far below market prices. Despite the fact that the Land Bank is a government entity that receives both direct and indirect taxpayer funding, David Allen, its executive director, was quoted last month as saying “I make no bones about it: We’re not a nonprofit; we’re a company. We’re a development company.”

As part of the proposed sweetheart deal, the City Commission of Grand Rapids purports to place a time limit on the Land Bank of 18 months to flip all of the properties it is receiving. However, the agreement between the Land Bank and the City has little in the way of teeth to enforce the timeline and it potentially would leave the City on the hook for failed Land Bank investments. The agreement, available online here, only states that the city “may” repossess the properties that the Land Bank fails to flip after 18 months. Furthermore, if the City decides to do so, it would be saddled with a clearly unwanted properties, including all the costs associated with owning such properties. No other consequence for a failure to abide by the agreement is included.

At a minimum, the City should add teeth to this agreement so that repossession is mandatory. In the case of such a failure by the Land Bank, the Land Bank should be on the hook for any and all costs incurred by the City in disposing of such properties. The proposed agreement is a sweetheart deal with the trappings of being all bark and no bite with a timeline that appears to force accountability, but has no real intent being invoked. It’s essentially meaningless with no serious enforcement requirements.

One of the allegedly "blighted" properties that the Land Bank will receive in a sweetheart deal - 49 Monroe Center NW, Ste 1B
One of the allegedly “blighted” properties that the Land Bank will receive in a sweetheart deal – 49 Monroe Center NW, Suite 1B

With the recent failures of City-granted tax breaks when promised jobs failed to materialize, it’s just good business for the City to ensure that promises made to taxpayers are kept and those who make those promises are held to account in the event that they don’t pan out.

Another important issue that taxpayers should consider is the impact of these property transfers on the budgets of both the County and other local governments. The Kent County Commission, after pressure from the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, changed its policy on transferring properties to the Land Bank before the public auction and left the issue to local cities and townships. Because of that change, the City of Grand Rapids is considering this transfer to the Land Bank, again before the public auction and only for the amount of taxes owed on those properties.

As we’ve pointed out previously using the county’s own records, the public auction generally raises about 1.7 times the amount of taxes owed on tax foreclosed properties. This is good for the county because that additional money is transferred to the county’s general fund. However, because the City of Grand Rapids proposes to take more than 160 properties out of the public auction process, we expect the county to lose approximately $850,000 in revenue.

The impact doesn’t stop there. The Land Bank, while it owns properties, does not pay property taxes. This reduces revenue both to the City and to other local government, including schools. On top of that, once the Land Bank sells its properties, 50% of the property taxes collected for the next five years go to the Land Bank, a self-described “development company,” and not to the City, county, or schools.

Just what makes this self-described “development company” unique and deserving of special favors continues to escape us.

The City claims that the transfer of these properties fulfills a public purpose of “restoring blighted properties” and “providing affordable housing.” We’ve heard from several individuals who have, in the past, purchased homes at the public auction as a way of getting an affordable home, which they then fixed up and built equity. The City’s actions are having the opposite effect – it is reducing the availability of affordable homes by preventing average citizens from purchasing homes at a public auction. The auction, a fair and open process, is being replaced with an opaque process subject to cronyism and managed by a taxpayer-funded entity that is acting like a private company with virtually no public accountability.

We urge the Grand Rapids City Commission to reject the sweetheart deal, allow the public auction to proceed, and offer to transfer only those properties which are truly blighted and unwanted to the Land Bank, so it can fulfill its intended mission.

New Poll Shows Grand Rapids Tax Increases Face Steep Climb and Land Bank Lacks Public Support

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) commissioned a survey with JD Consulting from June 1-3 which found that there is little support for the proposed tax increases in the city of Grand Rapids. In a phone survey of likely off-year election voters in the city of Grand Rapids, 52.4% of respondents opposed raising taxes to pay for increased funding of pools with only 26.8% support and 20.8% without an opinion. The results show that if city officials and supporters hope to pass the measure, they will have to significantly turn out their supporters, convince opponents, and most of those who are unsure. KCTA does not intend to take a position on the proposed tax increase.

In addition, KCTA sought to determine the support for the Kent County Land Bank Authority and its activities with citizens in Grand Rapids and two suburban cities. KCTA first asked the question, “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement, Government should not offer what private businesses can provide?” 56.4% agreed that government should not and 43.6% disagreed and felt government should provide services in competition with private businesses. The second question asked if people supported the taxpayer-funded Land Bank acquiring properties directly from the city or if they should first go to auction and the highest bidder. The results were broken down separately for Grand Rapids, Walker, and Grandville. Support for the auction process in Grand Rapids was 47.4% versus 31.5% supporting direct acquisition by the KCLBA and 21.1% with no opinion. The cities of Walker and Grandville had similar results with 73% and 75% support for the auctions respectively versus 24% and 22% for direct acquisition and 3% and 4% with no opinion.

The results of the polling on the Land Bank show a clear understanding from the people in those three cities to allow for an auction process and equal opportunity of acquiring property for everyone. The results did not specifically ask the question of whether the Land Bank served a vital role in the county. Said KCTA spokesman Eric Larson, “The polling results tell us what we primarily already knew. People want a fair process to allow equal opportunity for the purchase of tax foreclosed property to allow small entrepreneurs, large developers, and non-profits to revitalize these lots. There is clearly very little concern from those outside of Grand Rapids of problems with undeveloped or foreclosed lots not being utilized in their communities. We have been very pleased with the restrictions that the county commission has put on the auction process with the Land Bank but are concerned still that cities like Grand Rapids could hand over property at minimum bid prices and end up hurting their bottom line since the property would not generate nearly as much tax revenue as it would if a private individual purchased it. Hopefully, cities and townships will be at least very judicious in handing over real estate to the Land Bank.”