Freedom of Information Act

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 www.OpenGovernmentProject.org, 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.

Kent County Land Bank Changes are a Step in the Right Direction

In response to criticism from the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) and a lawsuit by a group of local real estate professionals, the Kent County Commission last week approved some changes to how the Kent County Land Bank operates.

Previously, the Kent County Land Bank identified properties that it wanted to purchase from the County as part of the property tax foreclosure process. The problem that the KCTA first publicized is that the Land Bank received preferential treatment and was able to purchase properties before the public auction at prices far below market value. In addition, the Land Bank picked properties solely for the purpose of real estate speculation to fund its operations and not to address blight, as it was designed to do. The statute that created land banks clearly states that the Land Bank will not receive properties until after the public auction process, if any unsold properties are left. This is meant to address the problem of blighted properties which do not sell because they are too expensive to rehabilitate or pose environmental problems.

A lawsuit was filed by local real estate professionals in Kent County to enforce the law as it is written. The suit was dismissed at the Kent County Circuit Court level because the Court ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing. The issue of whether the law is being violated was not addressed and is yet to be resolved. We supported the lawsuit because we believe that affected parties should be able to sue when the government is breaking the law. The Court begged to differ and decided that essentially no one has standing to sue when the County government is breaking the law. The case is under appeal. The County’s Land Bank Study Committee claims that the legal issue has been resolved, but it has not. The real legal question was never addressed by the Court. There is still a significant, unresolved legal question as to whether allowing the Land Bank to receive properties before the auction process is completed is legal. (Review the statute yourself here. The relevant section is paragraph (6)).

It is KCTA’s position that the Land Bank deprives both local governments and the County government of much-needed tax revenue. Although some County leaders claimed that money received from the foreclosure process cannot be transferred to the general fund, our own Freedom of Information Act request showed that this is not the case. In fact, a significant amount of money is transferred from the foreclosure fund to the county’s general fund each year. (see here and here). In addition, when the Land Bank sells a property that it acquired from the county, 50% of the property taxes collected from that property are sent to the Land Bank for the next five years, further depriving the county and local governments of revenue.

Furthermore, last year the Land Bank was able to acquire properties for only the amount of taxes owed. Our previous work, using the County’s and Land Bank’s own documents, showed that the process in 2012 deprived the County of at least $1 million in revenue, which will need to be made up in other ways, either through cuts or higher taxes.

The changes to the process approved by the County Commission are an improvement. The process has been modified to move the decision on which properties the Land Bank may acquire from the County Commission to local cities and townships. This creates an additional step and allows local governments to weigh the pros and cons of each property transfer. Further, the Land Bank will otherwise be required to bid at the public auction for properties, which improves the process, but now creates a situation with the Land Bank’s public funds will be used to bid against private buyers. In other words, taxpayer money will be used against them.

We stand by the fact that the Land Bank is a solution in search of a problem. It was designed to reduce blight, yet it clearly has stepped way beyond those bounds. There is no significant problem to address that couldn’t be handled in other ways, such as through existing non-profit organizations. While the Land Bank justifies its purchases by claiming that there are quite a few properties that sell at the public auction but then revert back to foreclosed status, the statistics show that only four such homes (0.5%) were re-foreclosed between 2010 and 2012 out of a total of 734 foreclosed properties. The remaining 27 properties that were re-foreclosed were vacant land properties. It isn’t a problem that requires a new County-run bureaucracy that has a significant negative effect on the County’s budget. (See county-provided documentation of re-foreclosures here). It’s important to also note that none of these re-foreclosed properties were requested by the Kent County Land Bank last year.

The Land Bank should be limited to only handling truly blighted properties, not purchasing properties at a distorted, below-market rate solely for the purpose of funding itself. While KCTA supports the recent change, a better next step would be to limit the Land Bank’s mission to addressing problem properties that do not sell at any of the public auctions.

KCTA Founder to Appeal ‘Unjust and Massive’ Fee with the ITP for FOIA Request

Today Jeff Steinport, co-founder of the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance and manager of the group’s ITP Watch project, filed a Freedom of Information Act appeal with Don Lawless, the chairman of the Interurban Transit Partnership board (also known as The Rapid). Steinport was charged $450 for a basic FOIA request which he states is, “vindictive and malicious and an example of the Rapid’s contempt for its taxpayers.”

The original FOIA request from Steinport asked for information on the Rapid’s ridership on a per-route basis, the amount the Rapid spends with several companies, and more detail on the proposed Silver Line bus route, which is again before voters in the May 3rd election. The Rapid is requesting a 31% property tax increase on May 3 with much of the new tax increase going to fund the Silver Line bus route which voters rejected in 2009 in four of the six cities.

Steinport made a request for a fee waiver because he believed the information he sought was in the public’s interest especially in light of the upcoming millage request. The Rapid denied the fee waiver request and proceeded to send him nearly 1,700 pages of printouts and a bill for $450.

“All government agencies have a procedure where they notify the FOIA requester that the cost will be over $50, yet the Rapid did not do this, contrary to their own practices,” said Jeff Steinport. “In fact, The Rapid is sending a message to taxpayers that they’d better not ask how The Rapid spends their money, and if they do, The Rapid will slap them with a bill for hundreds of dollars just for asking.”

Steinport believes that he was specifically singled out by the Rapid because it was graded the least transparent government entity in Kent County after a survey by KCFFR showed how little information it made available online. The Rapid received a transparency score of “D-“, a result of virtually no financial or operational data being available to the public.

Said Steinport, “The appeal filed today demonstrates how The Rapid violates both the spirit and letter of state law and how The Rapid fears public disclosure of its spending and operations. Taxpayers in Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker, Wyoming, and Grandville need to ask themselves if a government agency which consistently misleads the public and shows contempt for taxpayers deserves more money.”

The entire Freedom of Information Act appeal and more detail on The Rapid’s operations are available on our ITP Watch web site at www.ITPWatch.org.