Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
To the surprise and delight of elected officials in Calhoun County voters in Tuesday’s Primary Election approved each one of the 14 millages requested in various municipalities across the region including the cities of Battle Creek and Marshall and Athens and Homer townships.
“I know everyone is struggling, but people seem relatively comfortable about passing these millages,” says County Commissioner Gary Tompkins on Tuesday during a Zoom Election Watch Party. Tompkins, who was on the ballot for his 7th District seat, says he would have expected some of these millage requests to be voted down.
“I think this is a sign that people trust their local government much, much more,” he says.
With the exception of a Road and Sidewalk Millage proposal that passed by seven votes in the Village of Tekonsha, Steve Frisbie, Chair of Calhoun County’s Board of Commissioners, says the majority of these millages passed “very handily”.
He says this was somewhat of a surprise given high unemployment rates and economic downturns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but says most people who are looking at the stock market and their 401K’s think both are “doing just fine.”
“When you ask for a very specific reason and people understand what you’re asking for, as defined in a millage request, people have a clear idea of what that money’s going to be used for,” Frisbie says. “The Senior Millage was supported by 82 percent of the voters because they understand where the dollars go, how they are utilized, and the impact this has.”
While the Senior Millage request was a renewal, a Parks Millage was a new request. Frisbie says that the request was approved because “residents understand we have some really nice parks, but there’s the question of maintaining them.”
The parks' ballot proposal was for .2 mills for five years. It is expected to generate about $730,000 to cover the cost of maintenance, upkeep, and improvements to the county’s three parks. Half of the money generated will be set aside for use by municipalities within the county that want to perform similar park property improvements or establish parks.
That request passed with 5,120 votes with 14,154 “yes” votes and 9,034 “no” votes.
As results were rolling in Tuesday evening and it became apparent that the county parks millage request was going to pass by a healthy margin, Doug Ferrall, Program Manager for Calhoun County, says he knew this was the right time to make the request.
“There was a lot of support and interest based on surveys and outreach that we did,” Ferrall says during the Zoom call Election Watch Party. “People take pride in their parks. We knew we had to put it in front of voters.”
Perhaps, the request that sent the clearest mandate was the Senior Millage renewal which was approved by 82 percent of residents who cast ballots. In 2010, this same 10-year renewal request passed with a 79 percent approval.
Helen Guzzo, Manager, Calhoun County Senior Services, said this sends a message that people trust that the senior millage funding is helping seniors access programs and services that provide free transportation; access medical, dental, and vision care; and obtain in-home assistance that enables seniors to remain in their homes.
“We are doing what we said we were going to do – filling gaps in services for our seniors,” Guzzo says during the Zoom call. “It shows how local resources can solve problems.”
The virtual watch party was an extension of the way that supporters of all of the millage requests had to get their messages across because of social distancing guidelines.
Had this been an election pre-Coronavirus, Guzzo says she and her team would have attended as many in-person meetings and gatherings as they could to encourage approval of the Senior Millage request. Instead, they used social media and were able to get flyers into city tax and water bills.
Ferrall says similar efforts were used with the Parks Millage request. “We had to tell that story about the new proposal over Zoom or using advertising,” he says. “For people, it had to be about their love of the parks or their experiences with the parks.”
As a candidate now seeking to retain his seat in the Nov. 3 general election, Tompkins says there’s no question that it’s been a challenge to get his message out using social media. But, he wants to be sensitive to voters who are uncomfortable with in-person interaction.
“For me, the realness begins (this morning),” he says.
To read more about the ballot proposals please follow these links.
Calhoun County hopes increased use will lead to OK of .2 mills for park maintenance and improvements
Services for seniors, from meals to rides, depend on Calhoun County millage on Aug. 4 ballot