Scandal Over Youth Millage: Will Money Go to Jail Instead?
October 5, 2017
Suspicions have swirled around Muskegon County's "Youth Millage" with allegations the money will be diverted to pay for the new jail. While millage backers downplay such rumors, recently surfaced documents tell a different tale. Muskegon Spotlight has obtained a letter between the County Administrator and Board Chair Ben Cross that reveals this millage will do almost nothing for kids. Nearly all of the money raised will instead bailout the budget crisis caused by overspending on the jail.
But didn't they say this won't be spent on the jail? It's a bait and switch. Remember when the state lotto money was promised to go to the schools, but then politicians just cut the school's other funding? It's the same trick. Nearly all the new millage money will go to programs that already exist and are already being paid for with $4.8 million/year from the Child Care Fund. But an examination of county documents shows that as soon as the new millage starts funding these programs, that existing $4.8 million will likely be yanked away and redirected to fill the budget hole caused by the jail. One hand givith, and the other hand taketh away. That's no way to treat kids.
Perhaps they didn't think we'd approve a jail millage, so they just called it something emotionally appealing like "youth" and created an accounting gimmick to shuffle the money.
So why is there a budget crisis to begin with? The County needed a new jail. But instead of being upfront and asking the public for approval and getting proper funding back in 2013, the commissioners just went ahead and built it. The problem is they made it bigger and more expensive than was needed, and with no plan to pay for the $45 million cost. Now the bill is coming due and they don't have the cash.
Is there proof? Yes. Internal 2018 budget documents from the County Commission (available here) include a detailed description of their consultant's analysis of the budget crisis, the jail debt, and the need to find new money to fill the hole. The documents also describe their plan to seek a millage to raise new money for existing programs that are already funded so that the current funding can then be cut and redirected to the budget crisis caused by the jail. The documents specifically identify the $4.8 million Child Care Fund and the youth programs as a top target for this scheme.
This shell game allows them to publicly declare the millage itself isn't going to the jail, even as they still take away money that had been helping kids.
So what should the Commission do instead? The Commissioners need to stop playing games and be honest with the public. They caused this budget crisis with their own bad decisions. The commissioners need to practice better management and balance their budget. If a new millage is truly needed because of the jail debt, the commissioners should be transparent about that instead of using our kids as political props and insulting voters by trying to disguise a millage as being something it isn't.
Don't be fooled! Do your homework on this dishonest tax hike and cast an educated vote on November 7th!
References: Read for yourself the County Administrator's letter to Chairman Ben Cross describing the jail debt, the budget crisis, and the plan for a millage and come to your own conclusions:
Update:Here are the key portions of the 2018 budget letter some have asked for:
This line basically states that the budget crisis is due primarily to the jail cost along with pension issues: "Expenditures however are expected to increase significantly due primarily to the Jail/JTC debt service obligations and pension contributions. The forecast revealed that the consistent disparity between revenues and expenditures will result in the depletion of the General Fund’s reserves by FY2019 and reach a negative $38 million by FY2022."
And this line discusses the $4.8 million that the general fund now transfers to youth programs along with some other spending and the plan to explore a millage to fund these services instead so the general fund can stop paying into them. What that means is the youth programs won't be seeing much of a gain at all. Nearly all of what the millage gives them will be negated by the cutting of the $4.8 million: "The largest appropriation is approximately $4.8 million to the Child Care Fund. Others include $1.6 million to the Public Health Fund, $1.3 million to the Family Court Fund and several others. The consultant’s report recommended that the County explore special millage options to support specific services to alleviate the need for the General Fund to subsidize these operations." [*underlining added]