What services do voters prioritize, and are they willing to increase taxes to fund them?
In 2016 Washtenaw County, MI faced a number of challenges including: escalating demand on mental health services related to the opioid epidemic and teen mental health; public health threats including dioxane contamination of groundwater; economic development needs particularly in the eastern portion of the County, and increasing pressure on the budget for public safety. State funds in many of these areas had been cut and because of the way property taxes are managed in Michigan, local governments lose revenue when property values fall (as in the 2008 recession) but are slow to catch up when values rise again, meaning resources to address these challenges were limited.
EWR conducted focus groups and a survey to help the County understand residents’ perceptions and priorities. We learned that the public recognized mental health care as a serious issue in the county and that voters were especially enthusiastic about joint efforts of mental health and public safety to address drug abuse and mental health issues with treatment rather than incarceration. In general, we found that Washtenaw County residents prioritize government services over low taxes, though the rural parts of the County lean slightly the other way, as shown in the graph below.
In 2017, the County Commission put on the ballot a mental health and public safety measure that would increase property taxes by 1 mill ($1 for every $1,000 of assessed value) for eight years. In November it passed by a nearly 2:1 margin.