The first thing you need to know about the CARES millage on the Nov. 7 ballot is that it’s not called the CARES millage.
On the ballot, you’ll find it listed as a school district millage proposal to provide funding for operating a system of public recreation and playgrounds.
The Saline Area Schools district is asking voters to authorize a 10-year, .5-mill levy. For the owner of a home with a taxable value of $150,000, that amounts to $75 a year. It’s not technically a millage renewal, because the district is resetting the millage to .5 mills after a few years of Headlee amendments. For the owner of the previously mentioned home, you’re looking at an increase of less than a dollar per year.
The millage was originally passed in 2000, born out of the discussions that also built Saline High School and Harvest Elementary School. It was originally passed as a higher levy of .85 mills. But in 2008, school offficials reduced the CARES proposal to .5 mills as they added a sinking fund proposal of .35 mills. Both passed and are back on the ballot this year.
Saline Area Schools Superintendent Scot Graden said there were several factors at work when the first CARES millage was proposed.
“In Saline, the community is defined as the school district, not just the city. Instead of overburdening the city resources to provide recreation and cultural arts and senior citizen programming, why not have a millage that incorporates the full district?” Graden said, explaining the origins of the millage.
With the new high school came a new swimming pool and performing arts center. A 180-member committee decided a school district-wide millage should pay for it.
It became known as the CARES millage. CARES stands for cultural arts, recreation, enrichment and senior citizens.
At a recent Saline City Council meeting, Graden said the CARES millage is one of the things that differentiates Saline from many other communities in Michigan. During an interview last week, Graden said there were fewer than 10 communities in Michigan with a district-wide recreation millage.
A quarter of the CARES millage was dedicated last year to the Saline Area Senior Center. The CARES millage revenue flows through the school’s community education department, which is why senior center staff have Saline Schools email addresses. The senior center is in the back of Saline Middle School. Director Nancy Cowan says about 1,000 people a year walk into the center. Around 500 of those people are members of the senior center. Another 500 come in for specific needs, like programs on Medicare enrollment or help with tax preparation.
On daily basis, you’ll find some of the events you’d expect at a senior, Cowan said.
“A lot of people think of senior centers and they think of people playing cards and bingo and socializing. We do that. But we also have a lot of physically active programs like Zumba and the popular cardio drumming class,” Cowan said.
She said the fitness classes are making a difference in the lives of senior citizens.
Other programs also make a substantial impact. A consultant who helps seniors with Medicaid can often help save someone thousands of dollars. Another program called Meals on Wheels, delivers nutritious meals to 14 home-bound residents each weekday. Another program subsidizes transit to doctors’ appointments.
The programs range from critical to recreational.
Cowan said users of the senior center are fortunate to have so many offerings.
“We put out a 24-page program book few months. Other communities have centers produce just a few pages. So, we’re very fortunate here,” Cowan said.
One of the reasons why the senior center as such a robust offering is because of the CARES millage. The senior center has an annual budget of about $350,000. Almost 60 percent of that is from the CARES millage.
What would happen if voters rejected the millage? For about a year, or maybe two, you might not see major changes, because the senior center has a healthy fund balance. But after that?
“It would make a very big impact. We could operate as we are for two years. And then there would be significant increases to the fees and you’d see a decrease in staff. It takes staff to do all the things we do,” Cowan said. “If we didn’t have CARES, we couldn’t offer all the services we offer. So, you’d see costs rise and offerings fall pretty drastically.”
Almost 24 percent of the CARES millage funds swimming pool operations. Brian Puffer, Director of Community Education, said about $190,000 of CARES revenue goes into the pool each year. It pays for staff to manage the pool and coordinate all the activities. It also pays for pool equipment and some maintenance in the area.
Almost 20 percent of the CARES millage funds cultural arts at Saline High School and in the auditoriums at Saline Middle School and Liberty School.
What would happen to activities in the pool or theatres without CARES? It’s basically the same answer as at the senior center.
“They might still run, but it wouldn’t run like it would run today,” Puffer said.
Asked what it might look like for the Saline Stingrays swim team, Puffer said that if the club stayed at Saline High School, their fees would increase.
The same answer applies to groups like the Saline Area Players, Varsity Blues, or private local dance schools like Dance Alliance, who use school theatres for their programs.
“If CARES went away, those fees would go up a lot,” Puffer said.
Community Education would have to find new ways to fund positions that manage those facilities and some of the accompanying programs.
The other issue is maintenance.
“When things break in the pool or the performing arts center, those usually aren’t inexpensive repairs,” Puffer said.
The other major portion of CARES, nearly 24 percent of the revenue, funds general recreation – all those programs you see in the community education guide. Puffer said the revenue purchases supplies and equipment.
The district is putting the issue on the ballot a year early, so if voters did reject the proposal, there would be time to put it before voters again.
“It’s an interesting question,” Graden said, when asked if he anticipated the district would go to voters again. “We’d have to analyze the voter results first. But I think, since this millage has been around for 17 years, that there’s some understanding in the community what the CARES millage means and that there would be a push to put it on the ballot again.”