Friday, July 11, 2008

Auburn Hills has a growing tax base, a balanced budget and millions in surpluses in the bank.
Pontiac's finances are so weak that the governor had to appoint a team to review its deficit-elimination plan.
Balancing the interests on both sides of Opdyke Road is a task that keeps first-term state Rep. Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills, busy, especially as he faces what could be a tough re-election battle in the Aug. 5 primary.
"Most of my efforts are on Pontiac," said Melton, a Pontiac native whose district covers both cities, plus Sylvan Lake. But, he said, economic issues such as jobs are important in both cities, and so is education -- part of Auburn Hills is in the Pontiac School District.
He will face some familiar competition in one of the most closely contested primary battles in the metro area. One of his two opponents in the Democratic primary is Pontiac City Councilman Koné Bowman, whom he defeated by just 403 votes two years ago. Republican Scott Sampeer of Pontiac is unopposed in the GOP primary. But in the heavily Democratic 29th State House District, the winner of that party's primary will be the clear front-runner in November.
Like Bowman, Melton's other Democratic opponent, Frances Finnegan, a retired Pontiac Police detective who does free legal work for Pontiac, complains that the incumbent hasn't done enough for Pontiac.
"I want to make sure that everyone is equally represented," Finnegan said.
She said Melton supported Pontiac firefighters at the expense of other city employees during recent budget battles that have seen the city cut its police force by almost two-thirds. She wants the state to do more to help the cash-strapped community.
"They should offer grants to help us in our down times that will help us be self-sufficient," Finnegan said.
Bowman wants to see the state do more to help Pontiac market the now-empty Silverdome, which costs the city more than a $1 million a year to maintain and which the city is trying to sell. He also opposed Melton's vote in favor of last year's tax increases that largely affected businesses and was approved by the state Legislature to help balance the budget.
"We've had two tax increases," said Bowman, who runs a financial consulting firm. "As a small-business owner, I can tell you that hurts."
Melton defended his votes, saying no one likes to pay taxes. But because of income limits on the taxes, most of Pontiac's residents don't have to pay them. The alternative would have been to make cuts in Medicaid and the Department of Human Services.
"Pontiac would have been hurt a lot worse if those services had been cut," Melton said.
Melton said he has worked hard for Pontiac and Auburn Hills. He helped bring in Michigan State Police troopers to supplement the diminished Pontiac Police Department. But his proudest accomplishments have been in education, where he chairs a subcommittee in the House.
"We've set up 32 computer labs," Melton said. "It has been a great program. I truly believe that education is the economic development program of the 21st Century."
Bowman criticized the program, saying that the idea was sound, but the implementation was weak. He said the computers are old and don't work well. Melton said the computers aren't brand-new, but they allow children to connect to the Internet and learn computer skills.
Melton also is proposing what's known as promise-zone legislation that would help kids from poor neighborhoods attend college. The plan is based on the Kalamazoo Promise, a privately funded scholarship program for Kalamazoo public schools graduates who attend state universities.
Under Melton's plan, communities like Pontiac could set up promise zones and use a portion of new property taxes to fund scholarships for eligible students.
All of the candidates have been out knocking on doors in recent weeks looking for votes.
Sampeer, the Republican, faces no primary opponent and hopes to highlight economic concerns during his general election campaign. He is a financial analyst who favors tax cuts to create jobs and a tight rein on state spending.
"If I wouldn't do it with my own money, I won't vote to do it with yours," Sampeer said.
Sampeer said he knows that the district has voted for Democrats in the past, but he's not afraid to make his case.
"You never know until you try," he said.
Contact JOHN WISELY at 248-351-3696 or