Choose Your Poison
Sylvan's bitter $13 million pill
by Natalie Burg
The atmosphere at Sylvan Township Board meetings these days is different from what it was a year ago. The audience, which once barely outnumbered the five-member board, has become more numerous and more engaged.
"There has been a state police presence at the meetings," says Patrick Zieske, a Sylvan resident and founder of the local citizens' group Free Sylvan. "[Board members] feel very threatened by us. They've been there for a long time. If nothing else, I think we've accomplished something by getting people out to the board meetings. It was a sleepy little town before, and it's kind of woken up."
Nothing sounds a community-wide alarm like a millage proposal--especially when it's one designed to address a $13.2 million debt accrued from old development deals gone bad and a water and sewer project that benefits few of the township's 2,500 citizens.
"Up until I saw the notices in the paper about the town hall meetings [regarding the proposed millage], I didn't know anything about it," says Free Sylvan member Vicki Murdock. "We were not aware of how bad the situation was, what it was going to cost us, and for how long. Unfortunately, we had our head in the sand."
Even those who have been following the Sylvan Township issues for the last decade might share that confusion and disbelief. The $13.2 million debt comes from bonds issued on the township's behalf by Washtenaw County. Sylvan spent that money to build a $7.5 million sewer system and a $5 million water system.
Two prospective developers agreed to pay $8 million in assessments once they built homes that would utilize the new systems. But the economy crashed, and the homes were never built. A recently settled court battle over those assessments relieved the developers of responsibility for the vast majority of the $8 million, and it even gave one of the companies, Norfolk Development Corporation, 301 prepaid sewer taps on its property for future use. That left Sylvan's residents on the
hook for the debt.
Last year, Washtenaw County Commissioner Rob Turner negotiated an agreement with the county treasurer's office. The county agreed to accept repayment over a twenty-year period, with payments to be funded by a new 4.75-mill property tax.
Sylvan supervisor Bob Lange was pretty sure those terms were better than the township was likely to get if the county sued for repayment. "I think if we have a court-imposed millage it will be nine mills or more," he says. "Either way it's tough on people, but 4.75 is better than that." But even after multiple public education sessions held by Turner and township attorney Peter Flintoft, Sylvan voters turned down the millage, 475 to 328.
"I think it's just difficult to take a poison pill," says Lange. "They put a lot of work into trying to explain the issue to the public, but there was a lot of opposition to it."
According to some of the individuals associated with Free Sylvan, their choice to refuse to swallow a poison pill knowing that an even more toxic one might be forced down their throats had less to do with the relative pain than it did with the hand offering the medicine.
"I'm not complaining about my taxes," Zieske says. "My taxes are not high. But there were many reasons for voting No. There was a lot of anger and shock." One of those reasons, according to Zieske and other members of Free Sylvan, was that voters didn't trust the township board.
"In the town hall meeting they were throwing around 18 mills [as the tax that might be imposed if the millage failed]," says Zieske. "One week before the vote there was a board meeting and the township attorney admitted that the 18 mills was off the table. No one knew that. We never would have known that.
"There was a lot of fear being pounded into us."
Zieske emphasizes that Free Sylvan did not take a "yes or no" position with regard to the millage. He and other members of the group say their goal was simply to share information with the public. But according to Zieske, about 80 percent of those who received that information were resoundingly opposed to the millage.
"The contract language itself bothered a lot of people," says Zieske of the proposed settlement. "It was an affirmation that we owed the money as a township. It almost sounded like they were confessing."
According to Turner, though, the millage language "was basically stated the way the bond was stated as far as responsibility goes." When the county borrowed the money, the township promised to repay it. Passing the millage would have given Sylvan the money to do so--but rejecting it didn't make the obligation go away.
The only way the county would assume Sylvan's debt, Turner says, would be if the township had no taxable value. "There is a lot of viable property in Sylvan," the commissioner says. "Because of that, it will never happen. But to be truthful, I understand their anger."
Turner, a Chelsea resident, knew little about the Sylvan development debacle until his election to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to represent District 1, which includes Sylvan.
"I was at the American Legion's Winter  Carnival in Chelsea, and I had several people come up to me and say, 'I'm really concerned. We're being told we'll be assessed at 18 mills.'
"[The county] was talking about 18 mills over five years. I said, 'Times are hard. If you go after 18 mills, many of these people won't be able to do that. Some will have to go and borrow this money.'"
Turner's concern and his relative neutrality made him an ideal broker for a solution. While his efforts--which are acknowledged with gratitude by both the Sylvan Township board and Free Sylvan members--may not have resulted in a millage, a silver lining has emerged from the process. Turner's work has opened communication between the township and the county, between concerned citizens and the township board, and even between Sylvan citizens and their neighboring communities.
"We have met with some Chelsea city council members," says Zieske. "They could buy or lease a part of the [township] water tower, or buy interest in it. The city certainly would like to annex part of the township. It's not clear that the millage would be the only option until they have a real serious talk about it."
Because official talks between Sylvan Township and Chelsea city officials have not been scheduled, what happens next is anyone's guess. Though rumors have circulated about Chelsea's annexing township land, or putting a second millage proposal on a spring ballot, what seems more likely is that the township and the county will negotiate a consent judgment in the spring that sets the terms for repayment. This could range from the feared, though unlikely, 18 mills over five years to the same terms voters rejected last year.
"We don't know what the judge will say," says Turner. "He might say, 'You have Rob's plan, that's what I want,' and he could set the millage at 4.75."
Regardless of the outcome, Sylvan Township seems to have reached two major turning points in the last six months. Payments on the $13.2 million debt are sure to continue for years no matter what, but at least a settling of the terms of payment is finally on the horizon--whether the township voters choose their own fate or a judge does so for them.
What's more, the civic engagement sparked by the millage debate isn't likely to abate once millage terms are set. Not if the Free Sylvan folks have anything to say about it.
"We're definitely going to have better governance in this township," says Zieske. "Even if some of the board members stay there after the next election, they have people watching them. There is almost zero chance that something like this is going to happen again.
"We might take a hit from this, but we're not going to keep getting slammed."
[Originally published in June, 2012.]