Road tax question on May ballot

A pothole in Grand Rapids. (file photo)
A pothole in Grand Rapids. (file photo)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — City of Grand Rapids voters will decide in May whether to extend what was supposed to be a temporary tax for sustainability projects to pay for streets and sidewalks.

The question, approved on Tuesday for a May 6 ballot, will ask city voters to extend the income tax passed in 2010 and set to expire next year. If approved, the tax would be extended until 2030.

The original intent of the tax was to support the costs of moving the city toward more sustainable operations.

A task force set up by Mayor George Heartwell recommended the ballot question after surveying the city’s decaying streets.

Absent additional money from the state, city leaders says they can’t afford to fix up streets. And as maintenance neglect continues, the cost continues to rise.

“It will get us to good, but it won’t get us to great,” Second Ward City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss said.

She complained about the state’s lack of ability to come up with better road funding mechanism.

“I don’t want for a minute for the state to think that they can continue to put additional pressure on local units of government to continually come up with solutions while they can sit and not come together and find a solution,” Bliss said.

But what guarantees do we have the tax extension will go entirely to roads?

Mayor George Heartwell told 24 Hour News 8 that in the next month, the rules for spending those funds will be outlined  by the commission.

“Importantly not allowing us to do a bait and switch, which is use this money and move other money out of street funds and into something else,” Heartwell said.

An advisory committee will be formed to oversee the funds, as well.

But what about the timing and cost of the ballot question? Why hold a single-issue special election instead of putting it on the fall ballot, which will include the gubernatorial race?

Critics contend the special election is more expensive and since special elections usually have low turnouts, supporters count on getting their people to the polls while the opposition stays home.

But city officials defend the decision.

As for the cost, they say due to a number of factors, including technical reason involving taxation software, the special election will cost $75,000, opposed to $125,000 if it goes on the fall ballot.

The other reason for the special election: Because they can.

“We’re following state law. So state law gives us certain months of the year that we can have elections,” Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong said.

If approved, the extension will cost a city resident with a taxable income of $50,000 per year an extra $100 annually.

Non-residents who work in the city and earn $50,000 per year will pay an additional $50.

The extension will also give a break to city residents who, under the city charter, must pay for any repairs to their sidewalks.

A second ballot proposal would do away with that charge if the tax extension passes.

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