VANDENHEEDE: What does quality of life mean to you?

Dan Vandenheede is a Niles city council member, he can be contacted by email, djvandenheede@gmail.com or by phone, (269) 635-8458.

Quality of life. This has been my guiding principle when it comes to votes on the Niles City Council. As representatives of the citizens, I feel it is the council’s job to make Niles the best possible place to live for our residents.

Imagine your ideal city, a place you want to live, to spend your free time, that is quality of life. To me, quality of life means better roads, sidewalks, parks, trails and schools — as well as a variety of businesses, shops and restaurants that residents can easily access.

The problem with focusing on quality of life is that it is a long-term goal requiring long-term investment, while the city is often faced and consumed with short-term problems like maintaining our aging infrastructure and vehicles while trying to balance this year’s budget. The good news, I believe, is that when you make long-term quality of life investments, they will eventually pay for themselves. If you go back to your vision of the ideal city, the one where you want to live, chances are other people will want to live there as well. This creates demand for new and existing housing, driving up property values and tax revenues. As more people move in, more businesses follow, creating even more investment and revenue.

The dilemma is how to get the ball rolling — or more specifically, how to fund long-term investments while maintaining what you have. The state of Michigan has not been helpful in this regard. Because of state caps on millage rates and increases in assessed values, local governments have been forced to rely more and more on revenue sharing from the state, which unfortunately has been severely cut over the past nearly two decades.  According to savemicity.org, the city of Niles has seen over $8.5 million in revenue sharing cuts since 2002.

This leaves us with few options, all with their own risks. We could ask for a special millage earmarked for, say, public safety of parks. This would require asking the residents to pay more property tax, something I am not comfortable with. We could issue a bond to fund improvements now and pay it back over time, the downside here is we would be saddling future city leaders with a debt they would not want and may be ill prepared to pay if things don’t work out as planned. The only other option would be to pass deficit budgets for a few years, tapping into our fund balance to make some long-term investments, in the hope that they would pay off in the form of reduced maintenance costs and higher revenue from increased property values. As scary as it is to dip into savings, I believe if used strategically for long-term investments, it would not only improve our quality of life now, but could leave us financially stronger in the long run.

Absent increased revenue sharing or other changes from the state of Michigan, which do not appear likely, Niles has to decide what we are willing to do in order to fund ongoing expenses as well as long-term improvements.  So, what does quality of life mean to you? And, just as important, what are you willing to pay for it?

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