By Charles Sercombe
City councilmembers did an about-face Monday evening, and decided not to ask voters to again pass a millage hike to pay for police and fire pensions.
Or did they?
At last week’s regular council meeting, it appeared that there was a bare majority on council – Nayeem Choudhury, Fadel Al-Marsoumi and Mohammed Alsomiri – that would have allowed the millage proposal to have been placed on a ballot for this May.
(Councilmember Saad Almasmari left the meeting to catch a plane to Ethiopia.)
But it later emerged that Alsomiri had actually hand-signaled a vote against the proposal, which Mayor Karen Majewski then misread when assessing the vote.
The mayor later admitted she made the error, and said that, for now on all votes will be done through a roll call.
Since the council has been conducting its meetings via Zoom, there can be difficulty, at times, telling who voted for what.
Because of this mix up, a special council meeting was held on Monday to revote.
This time around, only Councilmember Al-Marsoumi supported the proposal.
Had it passed, this would have given the city a second opportunity to ask voters for financial help in paying the pension for firefighters and police officers.
As of now, the city levies a half mill to cover those pensions, but the money that raises covers only a fraction of the cost. The current half mill raises just a little over $100,000 a year for the pension. The actual cost is about $2.2 million a year.
The city had asked voters to allow it to increase property taxes by up to 10.5 mills last November, but voters soundly rejected that proposal.
Councilmember Al-Marsoumi said that last November’s election had too many issues on the ballot which, he said, confused some voters.
“A lot of people reached out to me,” he said.
By allowing voters to reconsider the proposal, Al-Marsoumi said, it would ensure that “no voice goes unheard.”
Councilmember Hassan said he’d rather have the city file for bankruptcy.
While it appears this issue is dead for now, City Attorney Jim Allen warned that, if the city misses a payment to its pension system (called MERS), that organization will sue the city.
“It’s either going to go on your taxes through a millage, or on your taxes through a (court) judgment,” Allen said.
If a court orders a property tax hike to pay for the pension obligation, Mayor Majewski warned it could be any millage amount a judge deems appropriate.
It could end up being much more that 10.5 mills.
Majewski’s role as mayor prevented her from voting on the issue, unless there had been a tie vote, in which case she would cast the tie-breaker.
The city has been operating under deficit spending for the past two years, but had a budget surplus to fall back on. That surplus is about to be wiped out.
City Manager Kathy Angerer said the city’s expenses outweigh the revenue that the city collects.
About $7.5 million is spent in total on all pensions, which includes city employees. That is about half of the city’s yearly budget.
Majewski said the city’s financial situation is “unsustainable.”
Posted Feb. 5, 2021