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Chad Selweski

Chad Selweski

Anti-Tax Group on a Winning Streak

November 17, 2017

Tax proposals presented by municipal and school officials typically enjoy a built-in advantage as government employees, their friends and family, and their labor unions present a united front in arguing that additional revenue is needed to prevent dire cuts in public services.

Yet, a somewhat rag-tag anti-tax group based in Macomb County is on a “winning streak,” defeating four local and regional millage proposals while faced with David vs. Goliath scenarios.

The Michigan Taxpayers Alliance (MTA) played the leading role in striking down three recent tax plans in Macomb plus the southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority millage in November 2016, which would have spent billions of dollars on mass transit expansion across Metro Detroit.

The MTA’s most recent surprise victory came earlier this month in the Nov. 7 local elections when the group defeated a 3-mill hike for the police/fire Public Safety Department in Fraser, a Macomb County city, after the alliance exposed a huge amount of red ink in health care benefits for city retirees, plus bloated salaries for current employees.

Though led by former Republican legislator Leon Drolet, a Democratic campaign consultant, Joe DiSano, expressed admiration for the anti-tax alliance’s campaign against the Fraser tax hike proposal.

“No Michigan city has handled its budget and legacy costs as ineptly as Fraser,” DiSano said in post-election messages on Facebook and Twitter. “… It was a pleasure watching Leon Drolet pick them apart.”

Irritating local elected officials

A former state House member who now serves as a Macomb County commissioner, Drolet spends part of his time scrutinizing budgets and financial data of cities, townships and school districts — and irritating mayors, township supervisors, and school superintendents in the process.

In addition to the defeat of the regional transit tax and the Fraser millage, the alliance shot down a countywide Macomb school millage in 2011 and a tax-linked bond proposal last May in Chippewa Valley, one of Michigan’s largest school districts.

The MTA can claim credit for those four defeats because in each case they were virtually the only opposing force taking on those ballot proposals. In neighboring eastern Oakland County, where anti-tax activity is sparse, four of five millages on this month’s Nov. 7 ballot passed.

In fact, the MTA’s impact on millage elections has prompted some of Macomb’s local officials to send intermediaries to Drolet’s door, seeking to make the case in private that their township or school district has engaged in responsible budgetary reforms that justify future millages or renewals.

While Drolet’s group has played small roles in other anti-tax campaigns, they assert that their four distinct wins at the ballot box will save taxpayers $5 billion – that’s billion, with a B. That tally is based mostly on one premise: the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) offered a 1.2-mill proposal that would have cost the Detroit area $3 billion over 20 years, and would have injected another $1.7 billion in state and federal funding.

The MTA vs. the RTA shaped up as a vintage underdog campaign throughout the fall of 2016.

While the transit authority lined up a long list of endorsements and spent nearly $2 million to win the support of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw county voters, the anti-tax group worked on a budget of just $67,000, which was spent mostly on radio spots and social media advertising.

In the end, the millage was defeated by less than 1 percent of the vote.

The MTA conducts no professional phone polls, hires no consultants, and does not compile focus groups. That keeps their budget low and allows their team to engage voters a bit under the radar. The group has relied mostly on campaign literature and robocalls. Because of their thrifty system of creating advertising, the alliance’s budget never exceeded $12,000 in each of the three local elections that swung their way.

The alliance consists of a board of directors and about 200 supporters. No dues are charged. Drolet acts as a one-man fundraising operation for the nonprofit 501(c)4 organization. That legal status means that the MTA does not have to reveal the names of their donors.

Macomb’s long history of anti-tax activism

In the role of political combatant, Drolet ranks as a purely Macomb-style tax fighter. The county’s anti-tax activism emerged in the late 1970s, though successful campaigns were few and far between.

As a former aide to infamous ex-Rep. (and state Senator) Dave Jaye, Drolet happily engages in snarky, hardball politics. But the Macomb Township Republican’s specialty lies in choosing certain sets of facts pertaining to taxes and spending to make his case. 

Those on the losing end of contentious MTA anti-tax campaigns typically cry foul. Especially a group called FAIR. The Fraser Advocates for Integrity and Responsibility last week went beyond post-election complaints of underhanded campaigning to claim that Drolet was part of a conspiratorial dirty tricks effort that supposedly reeled in $35,000 or more from devious sources.

Meanwhile, the MTA election-season ads pointed out that Fraser ranks fourth-highest among Michigan municipalities in per-person money owed in order to make the city’s retiree health care fund solvent. More than $4,600 per resident is needed to erase the ongoing red ink.

Overall, the long-term deficits within the city employees’ pension system rate highest in Macomb County while Fraser’s tax levy ranks third among the county’s 27 municipalities. In a town comprised of just 4 square miles, the city has 78 employees. Half of them earn a salary of more than $85,000. In addition, a couple of city scandals in recent years opened the door for the MTA to engage in some colorful criticisms.

As for those local officials approaching Drolet in secret to convince the MTA that their future millage plans are legitimate, the anti-tax group takes a diplomatic approach. Fiscal reforms are fully recognized.

“If they’re trying, we can walk away,” Drolet said. “But if you’re not making reforms, we’re coming at you.”

A freelance writer from Macomb County, Chad Selweski was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at chad.b.selweski@gmail.com.

November 13, 2017 · Filed under Chad Selweski


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