Elliott: Niles Township issue was ‘one of principles’

Published 9:45 am Tuesday, March 30, 2004

By By JAN GRIFFEY / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- R. McKinley "Mac" Elliott, an attorney who represents the Berrien County Commission, on Monday refuted statements made by Niles Township officials on Friday.
Niles Township officials, and its Treasurer Jim Ringler specifically, said the county commission should refund township taxpayers the $53,000 it has had to pay to defend its practice of collecting money from residents through a special assessment millage to help fund its fire department.
Last week, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by Berrien County Trial Court Judge Paul Maloney, agreeing that Niles Township's fire special assessment is in "complete compliance with state law," Niles Township officials said.
Township officials said litigation began when the Berrien County Board of Commissioners refused to certify the township's Fire Special Assessment immediately before winter tax notices were to be sent out in 2001, something the county had done for more than 30 years, said Niles Township's Ringler.
The township was forced to file suit to keep its fire department in operation while the matter was headed to court, Ringler said.
Niles Township officials, in a press release issued on Friday, questioned the motivation behind the legal action by the county, specifically naming County Administrator Mike Henry and Elliott as having "misled" the county board.
Elliott, responding to those charges on Monday, defended the county's actions.
He said assessments should be focused on "a specific group of private parcels receiving public benefit. It's not fair to charge the whole community for a public improvement project that benefits other than a whole."
Elliott also contends that a special assessment, under Michigan law, should exist for a limited length of time and cover a specific geographic area.
The Berrien County Circuit Court and the Michigan Appeals Court apparently disagree with Elliott's take on the law.
He said the county will not seek to appeal the latest court decision.
Elliott said the court had "two plausable choices and they made their choice. Obviously, I disagree with it. Special assessments should have a time limit. This one goes on in imperpetuity. This had nothing to do with wanting to deny fire protection. This was a matter of principles and voter participation in the taxation process. For anyone to say otherwise is a gross distortion of reality."
Elliott said personal attack accomplish nothing positive.