I am for the Oshtemo sewer expansion project, I live in Oshtemo and I want clean groundwater, however I am against the way it was implemented. I do not believe the township had ill intentions but poor decisions and mistakes have, in my opinion, deprived residents of due process and created a monster.
In October of 2019 Oshtemo township sent letters to residents about the sewer expansion project stating that each is required by law to connect and it will cost them, on average, nearly $20,000. This came as a shock to a large number of residents, but why?
Convince the residents it's out of the townships hands
You might say that residents should have known this was coming or should have fought it years ago. But the fact is that the township has a frequently asked question section on their website that had stated from 2017 to 2020 that the State of Michigan required residents to connect. In fact the State does not require the connection, the State gives the township the authority to require the connection. Engaged citizens reasonably trust our elected officials would not publish false information, had residents known mandatory connections were a township decision they may have been more involved years ago. In 2020 the township changed the answer to that question to say Oshtemo has an ordinance requiring you to connect.
Select a method of funding the project that doesn't require direct notification or a vote
Townships have multiple options to fund water and sewer expansion projects. Previously, Oshtemo used special assessment districts which required the township to notify all the property owners by mail, giving them a chance to protest before the assessment was finalized. This time Oshtemo used “Limited Tax General Obligation” (LTGO) bonds, a.k.a. “non voting bonds”. The only notice requirement is that a quarter page ad be placed in the local newspaper notifying the public that the township intends to issue $30 million of bonds for the project and that the public has a right to protest.
Place the ad on a day no one will see it
The ad was placed in the Kalamazoo Gazette on 10/15/2018, a Monday, when the paper is not delivered to subscribers. Residents then had 45 days to gather signatures from 10% of the township electorate to call for a special election. Either the residents didn’t see the ad, didn’t understand its impact on them or both. All Oshtemo township residents who are Gazette subscribers, who reasonably expect to be informed of such notices, were simply not informed. When the township found out about their error they should have republished the notice, but instead they are saying that it still satisfied the statute.
Use a type of bond that erodes the voting power of residents
The Michigan State Headlee Commission has stated the use of LTGO bonds is a subversion of the restrictions imposed on units of local government by the Michigan Constitution Headlee Amendment because they tie the hands of successor governments and erode the voting power of the people, yet Oshtemo chose to use them.
Don't directly communicate the cost to the residents until its too late for them to do anything about it
Without allowing the residents to vote, the township is now requiring residents to pay huge “Connection privilege Fees” ($9,000-$14,000, on average $11,000) and then the resident has to hire a private contractor to connect the house to the pipe, which costs an additional $3,000 to $8,000. This is harming our most vulnerable. Many of our senior citizens, who literally built Oshtemo and have worked and supported themselves their entire lives simply cannot afford this and are now in a position where they could lose their homes and the township refuses to exempt them from connecting.
The township also didn't directly communicate the costs of the project to those affected before deciding to go forward with it.
23% ($10 million) from the general fund, $250,000/yr for 40 yearsBlame the Realtors
37% ($15 million) from connection privilege fees
31% ($13 million) from a surcharge on existing sewer users
8% ($3 million) from a surcharge on new sewer users
Total cost of sewer over 40 years is more than $42 million with no chance to vote
In a neighborhood meeting, the Township Supervisor has said that Oshtemo Township communicated that the project was coming to the "realtor association", presumably GKAR, in the hopes they would disseminate that information to area realtors. She went further to say that she has heard reports that area realtors are purposefully withholding that information because the realtors believe the project is not a done deal. Realtors only have access to public assessment records and no assessment has yet been made, remember they used LTGO bonds that do not raise taxes so no official assessment exists. Unless the realtor you are using lives in the neighborhood of the house you're purchasing they may have no idea of the political landscape or future projects. I searched the "bearings" section of the GKAR site and found no reference to any notice the township wanted published to realtors who might transact a home purchase or sale in Oshtemo.
What Can I Do?I’ve asked the township to allow those with financial hardships to be exempted from the connection requirement. The State of Michigan has offered to pay for the "Connection privilege Fee" in exchange for a lien on their property. By allowing people with financial hardships to be exempted from connecting, the State pays for the pipe, the bond is paid by the township and the resident remains self sufficient and can pay for a roof leaking or a car repair without losing their home. If they are forced to take a loan from the township, they are forced into even more dire hardship.
Everyone should strive to hold their government accountable. I’ve proposed to the Oshtemo Township board that they change their communication management plan to include a letter sent to each property owner affected by future projects of this nature explaining the cost to them above and beyond property taxes before the decision is made to go forward with the project, giving the residents a real opportunity to support or oppose the project.
What Can You Do?We are creating an Oshtemo Township Resident Association. This is not a neighborhood association, it will not have rights over anyone's lawn, siding, flag pole, mailbox, etc... This is an association to pool our resources and fight for our collective rights. The association's first task was to research our legal options. We believe we have a strong "Inadequate Notice" case in regard to the Bond Issue notice published in the paper on a Non-Delivery day. We believe we can get an injunction and require the township republish the notice, at which time we will have 45 days to gather about 1000 signatures from residents who would like the issue placed on the ballot at the next election and let the people decide. If the people decide to not allow the bonds to be issued, that will be the end of the project. If not, then we shall continue to try to reduce the "Connection privilege Fees".
But court cases cost money. We have already raised over $10,000 through our goFundMe account. We have found a law firm and are proceeding with the case, but as soon as the money runs out, so does the legal firm. We would like to get at least 300 people in our association each willing to pay $500 per year for up to 3 years. Considering there are nearly 23,000 residents we hope this goal is achievable. This will raise enough money for the case to be fought for up to 3 years or until it is concluded. We want people to go into this eyes wide open, there is no guarantee the case will be won, but if it is, the settlement may pay you back your association dues, the project may be cancelled, you may get lower connection fees, and you may get a special assessment that doesn't affect your credit and doesn't put a lien on your house. Please click here to check out the next meeting time.
We have created the association, had our town hall presentation and over 250 people attended. We now have 251 paying members in the association. Our Legal firm has filed a "Notice of Claim" with the township and the township has agreed to mediation. Our board of directors is attending the mediation along with the township's supervisor and legal counsel on May 6th. We hope to come to an agreement that both sides can tolerate.Update 5/20/2020
Mediation failed.Update 6/3/2020
We have filed a suit against the township challenging a) the notice of intent to issue bonds, was posted in a day not delivered to subscribers and is only 1/6th a page and the statute says it needs to be 1/4. b) the notice of availability cannot be sent until the sewer is actually available. c) the connection fees are disguised taxes in violation of the Headlee Amendment.
The township has agreed not to levy fines against people in the lawsuit for not connecting to existing sewer lines while the litigation is in progress
Two township board members are not running for re-election, this year's election may produce a new board
One township board member has indicated concern that the ordinance might be outside of the Michigan statute, the fact that the bond might not be issued until November making the sewer installation a year late emphasises why the notice of availability should not have been issued before the pipe was in the ground.
The township has republished the notice of intent to issue bondsUpdate 6/8/2020
We are now in the process of gathering signatures for a petition to put the bond issue on the November ballot
If the board votes to change the ordinance to require the connection 18 months after a notice of availability is published after the sewer is actaully available, then two of our three goals will have been met. The third is that the connection fee be a special assessment assessed yearly on the property, not a disguised tax to be paid immediately. OR a greatly reduced connection fee in line with the benefit conferred to the property, not the cost of the infrastructure.
The township has sent letters to everyone who was required to connect to an existing sewer in 2020 and has extended that to 2021.