No Senior Discount

July 17, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Even though the Downtown Development Authority said it has to capture a share of the senior millage, board members agreed last week that they have to do something to help seniors in their district — even if it means expanding the district.

Longtime board member David Cassard, chairman of the Waters Corp., suggested that the DDA create a policy that would allow the agency to fund the downtown center that is operated by Senior Neighbors.

The problem with that is Senior Neighbors is moving from its current cramped location at

44 Ionia Ave. SW
, which is inside the DDA district, to a site with twice the space at
333 S. Division Ave.
, which isn't. And state law says the DDA can't finance a project outside its boundary, at least not very easily.

So board members told Executive Director Jay Fowler and legal counsel Dick Wendt to come up with a policy by next month that would allow the DDA to help Senior Neighbors get situated in its new office. Senior Neighbors and

Dwelling Place
— which is making the space on
Division Avenue
available to the group — have asked the DDA to contribute $128,000 to the move, a request that was supported by the Area Agency on Aging of West Michigan.

But Fowler said the board has set aside more than the amount that was requested for the downtown center, although he didn't reveal the exact figure, and could do more than just fund the center. The city and KentCounty, though, would have to let the DDA expand its boundary, as both would lose some property-tax revenue to the authority in the expansion area.

"I think we need to do something to help the seniors," said DDA Vice Chairman Paul Mayhue, also a county commissioner whose district includes part of downtown.

Prior to the policy discussion, the board agreed that it couldn't give up the portion of the senior millage it captures each year, because the DDA has pledged every dollar of its tax-increment revenue to the buyers of the 1994 Van Andel Arena bonds.

Wendt told the board that waiving any of that revenue would breach the agreement the DDA has with the bondholders. He added that if the board surrenders revenue from the senior millage, it would also have to relinquish a similar amount from the school operations millage.

"As you are aware, the DDA relies primarily on school tax increment revenues to pay debt service on the bonds. A proportional reduction of such school tax increment revenues would have an impact on the payment of debt service on the bonds," said Wendt, who cited the Downtown Development Authority Act of 1975 as the basis for his opinion.

"You would have to reduce the school tax millage by the same percentage," he added. "The money would actually end up with the state."

The DDA's debt service is slightly more than $5 million annually. Fowler said the board received about $48,000 this year from the senior millage and would capture roughly $63,000 next year if the ballot measure, which contains an increase, passes on Aug. 8.

Retired attorney Don Souter, a volunteer for the steering committee that is backing a renewal of the senior millage, said the DDA received $77,000 a year from the levy.

Souter made an unsuccessful attempt to convince board members that they weren't restricted by the bond agreement or by state law, and they could give up the revenue.

"I don't think there is any question that you can waive it," he said.

Souter noted that voters approved the senior millage after the DDA issued the arena bonds, and he argued that board members couldn't have realistically included revenue from a levy that didn't exist when they agreed to sell the securities.

But DDA member John Canepa pointed out that issuing the bonds wasn't any different than agreeing to a loan. The former bank executive explained that the DDA, as a borrower, pledged all its tax revenues to the bondholders, regardless of when it began receiving the income. And he said that pledge wasn't any different from one a company makes when it guarantees all of its assets to a lender.

The ballot proposal will ask county voters to renew the eight-year-old millage of 0.25 mills and also raise it by 0.08 mills to a third of a mill. It's been estimated that the increase would add revenue of $1.6 million to the tax, which KentCounty expects to total about $4.54 million this year.

Passage of the measure would extend the millage through 2013. The property tax on a home valued at $160,000 would go up to $26.40 next year, an increase of $6.40 from this year, if voters ratify the millage.

"You didn't do what I wanted you to do," Souter said in his parting comments to the DDA. "But thanks, anyway."    

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