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Disincorporation hot topic at work session

Marie Havenga • Mar 15, 2017 at 10:00 AM

The chairman of the Spring Lake Village disincorporation work group shared more information at a Village Council work session Monday night, but it still appears there may be more questions than answers.

Tony Verplank, nephew of Village President Joyce Verplank Hatton, doesn't share the same enthusiasm for dissolving the village as his aunt. He told council last month that the disincorporation work group decided unanimously that it is in the village's best interest to keep its current form of government.

But the group also recommended that village citizens be given an opportunity to amend the Village Charter, which would provide a mechanism for disincorporation so that it would at least be an option down the road.

In 2012, Hatton petitioned for disincorporating the village and making it part of Spring Lake Township. Although she had more than enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot, an Ottawa County judge ruled that the village's current charter does not include any provision or mechanism for disincorporation.

Last year, Hatton campaigned for the seat of village president on a platform of disincorporating the village, because she believes residents are subject to “double taxation,” as they pay property taxes to both the village and the township. Hatton believes it would be much more efficient for the municipalities to operate as one entity.

Verplank told council Monday night that there are a lot of moving pieces and unknown numbers, but he estimates the village would save “a few hundred thousand dollars” by disincorporating.

“It really comes down to a matter of choice,” he said. “We can certainly reduce our taxes through disincorporation, but what are we willing to give up for that? We can certainly reduce our taxes without disincorporation, as well.”

Verplank said it is his understanding that some of the village debt would become immediately due and payable in the event of disincorporation. Although values are not known, the village could sell buildings such as Village Hall and Barber School; parks such as Mill Point and Central Park; and liquidate equipment such as leaf blowers, trucks and plowing equipment to help pay off the debt.

Village Manager Chris Burns said one of the largest obligations is pension funding, estimated at more than $1.7 million.

“We still owe approximately $1 million on this building (Village Hall), which would need to be sold, perhaps to Spring Lake Township, to offset the bond debt,” Burns said. “Obviously, there are contractual obligations which are lesser amounts, but the village is still on the hook to pay for.”

It is unclear what would happen if there would be any assets left after paying off debt, according to village attorney Robert Sullivan.

Verplank said he personally is not in favor of amending the Village Charter to allow a mechanism for disincorporation, nor is he in favor of disincorporating. He said the village has done “just fine from day one” without a disincorporation provision in the charter.

“There just isn't enough there in my mind to warrant the trade-off,” Verplank said, adding that he sees no reason why the township would want to absorb the village. “I still feel that way. But I think the people in the village need to have their voices heard. They elected President Hatton to the council on this issue and they ought to have their voices heard. I'm in support of people having an opportunity to voice their opinion on this. I think it's important to have the vote, even though it's maybe not the best use of village funds.”

How it can be done

Council is planning educational campaign and community engagement sessions for June 19-20 to help better inform residents on the issue. That could cost $15,000 to $20,000.

If the governor approves the ballot language, the question of amending the Village Charter is expected to appear on the Aug. 8 ballot. It would require a simple majority to approve or disapprove.

If the charter amendment is approved, residents could petition for a disincorporation ballot measure, which would require a two-thirds majority vote. Or council could appoint a disincorporation commission to set up a plan for disincorporation and put that on the ballot.

Councilman Joel Tepaaste asked that if it came to that, that council consider requiring a two-thirds majority vote for the plan, instead of a simple majority.

“If it's a great idea, two-thirds of the people will vote for it,” he said. “If it's not, they won't.”

Township voters would also have a say at the voting booth.

Related Story: Township officials indifferent on disincorporation

Councilwoman Megan Doss was visibly uncomfortable with the disincorporation discussion, particularly when council discussed potentially selling city parks if disincorporation became a reality.

No one on council is advocating for disincorporation, but members are apparently trying to learn all they can and explore all the angles so as to better lay out realistic pros and cons for residents.

“I don't agree with disincorporation at all,” Doss said. “I totally and completely think this is a bad idea. I know this is a wrong decision. I feel like, yes, the voters need to vote, but it's such a bad idea.”

Legal counsel told council members Monday that no Michigan village has ever disincorporated, and that it is common for municipalities to not have language in their charter that allows for a method to disincorporate.

“I'm not sure that being the first, in this case, is necessarily a good thing,” Burns said. “It seems as though if it were such a great idea, villages all over the state would have disincorporated back in 2007 and 2008, during the recession.”

Hatton’s family matters

Hatton said Tuesday that she greatly appreciates the work of her nephew and the disincorporation work group, but she is surprised they are not in favor of dissolving the village.

“I hope to change his mind,” she said of Verplank. “It's my job to convince him that becoming one, as they say, one nation, one Spring Lake, one tax, indivisible, liberty and justice for all. ... The majority should be able to rule their own government.”

Hatton said being family members makes it more difficult.

“I do not enjoy being pitted against him in public because I want to be very respectful and I expect the same of him,” she said. “And I respect the rest of the family. I can truly say I do not know if his dad, his brother, the in-laws and outlaws of the family, I don't know which side they are on. I can't even guess.”

Hatton told council Monday she thinks the township may be interested in “the goodies” they would acquire upon disincorporation. But she said she has spoken to an attorney who doesn't think it is necessary for township voters to have a say in any future disincorporation vote.

“I am personally going to ask the governor and attorney general if it is legal to even ask for the vote of the township voters at all,” Hatton said. “I think it's very important to realize that if you can incorporate, you can disincorporate. What you disincorporate into is the next structure for which you have already been paying (taxes), the same as the people who live outside of the village limits. Legally, I don't think a township vote is even needed.”

Hatton said it will take a lot of hard work for citizens to gather petitions, as many as 40 people to gather 300 signatures, but she is still confident disincorporation will become a reality.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” she said. “People said never use Trump's name, but as you know, there weren't many people who thought that Donald Trump was going to win the presidency, including all the major press.”

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