Niles Township: County should pay legal fees for recent court case

Published 9:33 am Saturday, March 27, 2004

By By JAN GRIFFEY / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- Niles Township officials want the Berrien County Board of Commissioners to refund township taxpayers the $53,000 it has spent to date defending its fire department special assessment.
Further, Niles Township Treasurer Jim Ringler suggests county commissioners should investigate the motivations behind the lawsuit, which he said the county commission supported at the urging of its attorney, R. McKinley "Mac" Elliott, and County Administrator Mike Henry.
Berrien County in 2001 challenged the township's fire special assessment in Berrien County Circuit Court, and lost.
This week, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the Berrien County Circuit Court ruling, agreeing with Berrien County Trial Court Judge Paul Maloney that Niles Township's fire special assessment is in "complete compliance with state law," said Niles township officials in a press release issued Friday afternoon.
Township officials said litigation began when the Berrien County Board of Commissioners refused to certify the township's Fire Special Assessment immediately before the winter tax notices were to be sent out in 2001, after it had certified the levy for more than 30 years prior.
Ringler said he has asked several of the commissioners why they voted to not certify the levy and was told they voted upon the recommendation of attorney Elliott.
Niles Township officials said those ramifications total more than $53,000 in legal expenses for Niles Township taxpayers.
Ringler said he thinks the county's corporate counsel, Elliott, along with county administrator Henry "misled the Board of Commissioners not once but twice and that the Board of Commissioners themselves neglected their duties by voting without researching the issue on their own.
Contacted at his office at the Berrien County Courthouse on Friday afternoon, Henry said Berrien County will not appeal the ruling. However, he said his opinion is that the action taken by the county commission was appropriate.
Henry said he thinks Niles Township's fire assessment is "really an operational millage that the voters ought to have the opportunity to weigh in on. The court saw it differently and I'm very respectful of that."
Henry said county officials "are obligated as professionals to go forward with positions that we think are correct even though they may be unpopular. If you are in the arena of public service, you need to do what you think is correct," Henry said.
Ringler strongly disagrees.
In a response to a report in a north-county newspaper in 2002, Niles Township officials said Elliott boasted to the fact that this lawsuit had statewide implications.
More than 131 similar special assessment districts and $77 million in 43 counties statewide depend on special assessments for their department funding, township officials said.
Elliott did not return before press time for today's newspaper a phone message left at his office on Friday early afternoon.
As for Henry, Ringler said he leaving Berrien County to run for state representative.
Niles Township officials said Niles Township residents paid twice -- paying township tax dollars to defend the Township's position and County tax dollars to fight the Township at both the trial court and appellate court.