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Pittsfield Replay

With a looming deadline, a smaller public-safety ask.

by James Leonard

From the November, 2021 issue

In May, Pittsfield voters turned down a renewal and increase in the township's public safety millage. With the current millage expiring at the end of the year, time is short to get a replacement passed. So for the November 2 election, township officials are playing it safe: they've scaled back last spring's 2.95-mill, ten-year proposal to 1.95 mills for five years.

The township's population has more than doubled in the last thirty years, to 40,000 people. What happens if the millage doesn't pass?

Police chief Matt Harshberger chuckles grimly. "We've had increases in expenses," he says. "Our tax revenues have not recovered from where they were after the Great Recession." According to the township website, a second defeat would require cuts to police and fire staffing, increasing response times. The township would also have to delay equipment purchases, reduce training, defer racial equity initiatives, and limit the departments' involvement in community education and safety awareness events.

Supervisor Mandy Grewal thinks the first millage failed because "people just did not understand why we needed to increase the taxes. They did not understand the extent of the fiscal constraints that we functioned within for the last decade." Even with personnel freezes and new grant funding, Grewal says, the township spent down most of its fund reserves just to maintain services.

"We need to increase the public safety millage if we are to maintain the existing level of public services across the board--not just police and fire, public services across the board--for the next five to ten years," she says. "We need at the very least a one-mill increase."

The first rejection surprised county clerk and veteran elections watcher Larry Kestenbaum. "I don't think anti-tax [sentiment] would have defeated the millage by itself," he emails. "This was a direct way for voters who believed in 'defund the police' to do exactly that."

In hindsight, Grewal says, "we probably should have had some sort of a Zoom online informational meeting" about the May request. The township also wasn't prepared to respond to what she calls "a lot of wrong information" circulating on social media. This time, they've been holding both online and in-person sessions, with Harshberger and his team "hosting a type of pop-up tent where they were answering any questions and whatnot that residents had regarding the millage."

Will their efforts to convince voters to approve the millage this time? "I'm cautiously optimistic," says Harshberger.     (end of article)

[Originally published in November, 2021.]


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