When a 1% property tax administration fee (PTAF) showed up on Ludington tax bills this summer, it was a matter of simple research and corroboration to find out that the City of Ludington (COL) failed to legitimize this fee in accordance with state law, opting instead to avoid the issue altogether, put the 1% PTAF on the bill, and see whether anybody would notice their oversight.
In the process of getting the public records to verify the PTAF was not legally authorized by the council, new City Manager Mitch Foster was forced to admit the mistake...
… and made a decision, likely based on advisement by City Attorney Richard Wilson, a Manistee resident, to try and quickly legitimize it so that city hall could get an extra $44,000 or more for this year from Ludington property owners. Wilson seems to believe that the tax will be binding for the summer tax bill if they can authorize the PTAF before the taxes are due, rather than when the taxes are levied.
Section 9.8 of the city charter is open to a different interpretation; it says: "The City taxes provided for by this Charter shall be assessed and levied prior to the first (1st) day of September in each year, shall become payable on that date..." Both taxes and a then-illegitimate, unauthorized fee acting just like a tax were levied on the bill. Levying this fee afterwards will likely be legally challenged if this passes Monday, as it seems to be a retroactive fee-tax. If it doesn't pass and the COL refunds the money of the folks who pay the 1% PTAF, no harm will be done-- other than a lot of wasted resources due to the COL's lack of diligence by many officials.
In the meantime, Mitch seems to have formally said good-bye to having any foothold in the realm of fiscal conservatism and looking out for the taxpayers by pursuing the PTAF vote at this tardy date and making an ex post facto resolution to imposing fees that had never been legal in Ludington since 1983. He hasn't done this passively either, he has used the dependable tool that city leaders have relied on for a couple of decades or more to spread the word: the City of Ludington Daily News (aka the COLDNews).
There are many dozens of basic techniques in writing propaganda, but the basic elements of creating good propaganda were simplified and reduced to five in a recent PR blog:
1) Control the media
2) Emotional appeal
3) Avoid troubling counterpoints and associated imagery
4) Simplicity and repetition
Keep these five in mind as we review what the COLDNews put out on the Friday before the Monday's vote. It should be noted that the title: "Ludington summer property tax bill includes new administration fee, but city council will vote on approving the fee Monday" was placed in the electronic version of the COLDNews, which was simplified (#4) with any bad connotation taken out (#3) for the hard copy title seen below.
The first three paragraph indicates the PTAF's general legitimacy (#5). Those familiar with the newspaper business are aware that news articles generally cover the who, what, when, where, why and how questions of the reader in the first paragraph or maybe two. This has been done since early newspapers when people had longer attention spans and hoped to entice the reader into reading further. With the very short spans of today, most readers will scan over the first couple paragraphs and lose out on the main point.
City Manager Mitch Foster who is the only personal viewpoint and source in this article thereby avoiding counterpoints (#3) and offering legitimacy to his words (#5), makes the point that the COL can pass a retroactive fee better even without reference to any legal authority or law. The reporter allows this to go unchallenged, to further legitimize the point (#5), and show the COL's control over the media source (#1).
In column four, Foster paints the alternative to not passing this PTAF now as a major 'headache', he effectively admits the same on p. 66 of the council packet where he recommends passing the retroactive fee, in an emotional plea (#2) to avoid the chaos caused by doing the right thing. He continues by defining where the problems behind this oversight arose, much like we did in our previous article. Those point mainly away from him and the newer members of city government, and towards those no longer here (#3). That continues on page A8:
In explaining all of the good that the 1% PTAF will do for the COL and not any of the harm it could do the taxpayers (#2 and #3), Foster brings up the deputy treasurer's wages in column two. As noted in Thievin' Steven Brock, the deputy treasurer is still as illegitimate as the 1% PTAF, because her appointment never went through council, it still hasn't because back during Brock's time, the COL would not admit mistakes so they couldn't correct them.
After stating his lack of involvement in introducing the PTAF, Foster appeals to passing it so that other 'popular' services could receive more money that would be 'freed' up in the general fund-- even though they could not directly get money from the fee (#2), avoiding the idea that this money would come from an effective tax hike (#3).
The next line of propaganda goes back to legitimacy as Foster and the COLDNews attempt to show that the rest of the county is collecting the tax-- though it is somewhat misleading. When Foster says "all local municipalities in Mason County" are collecting PTAFs it is unclear what definition he uses for municipality, which may include all taxing authorities in the county or just the incorporated cities governing bodies. In Mason County, that would just be Ludington and Scottville, neither of which currently has authorized PTAFs on their summer tax bill. The COLDNews does not elaborate on the definition used but infers its universality and normalcy (#1 and #5).
Foster also fudges a bit on facts when saying that this is one of many times the COL has considered the PTAF and has never enacted it. As noted in the LT's previous expose, they did briefly enact the fee in 1983, had the PTAF in force for a couple of weeks, albeit never collected, and repealed it at the next meeting. It has never come to the floor of the city council until it will on Monday, 9-9-2019.
Let us hope that the public is not taken in by the propaganda arm of Ludington City Hall and realize the City of Ludington tried to illegally take a lot of extra money out of your pockets, and they don't want to give that money back.
Worse, these pickpockets may have a spokesman admit it was a mistake, just a procedural oversight, but will the thieves and their accomplices actually say they are truly sorry for their error in judgment and let you go on your way with your money intact? Or will they show their true colors as robber barons by getting out their proverbial knives in order to take this money by threat of using force without any kind of contrition towards you or your family's welfare?
Any councilor who votes for this is not your friend and is worthy of recall, whether it be for their unapologetic confiscatory actions or for their inexcusable oversights. Let them know that tomorrow at their meeting at 6:30 PM, Ludington City Hall. Let the COLDNews also know that they need to start promoting the people's views instead of just the City's views or they are just part of the problem.
So, does this very seldom act of true justice by the COL officials make for an extended time for property taxes to be due and paid? Or will the COL resend the adjusted taxes due to all locally? Or do locals just adjust the amount of -1% and pay that amount? I'd like to get some factual answers to all these questions now too, thanks. Failing to legitimately introduce and pass the PTAF legally in advance, again required C.A. Wilson to put his warped interpretation on the table, but this time, it was overrode, thankfully.
I was shocked council over rode Wilson, even though he threw some questionable argument out.
Taxes are still due at the same time. If you haven't paid already, subtract the 1%. If you have paid, you will receive a 1% credit on winter tax bill, is what was said at the meeting.
Effectively ignore the 1% PTAF when paying the tax bill, do not pay 1% less than the total, because then you would be in error.
Here's why without using the usual variables that most people cringe at. Let's say your taxes were an even $1000 (we all wish) then the PTAF would be 1% of that or $10 for $1010 total. If you subtracted 1% off at that point, or $10.10, you would be paying $999.90 and the City would be after you for that missing dime.
Attorney Wilson's specious arguments make a good reason for looking around for a new city attorney or law firm. Wilson, an elected trustee out at WSCC, should realize that there are political consequences for taking undue liberties with taxpayer funding. It's rarely seen when you're a college board member, but it should be evident that even if only 10% of your supporters hold it against you at election time, that's a twenty point swing for a challenger, maybe more if it becomes the rallying issue for that challenger.