Patricia Randall’s journey from mom to mayor of Portage began with a tax bill. When she and her husband, Bob, moved into their new home in Portage in 2006, they were hit with a tax bill that was 60 percent higher than the bills for surrounding homes.
The Randalls were experiencing what’s called “following sales,” which is the unfair practice of a tax assessor ignoring the assessments of properties that have not recently sold while making significant changes to the assessments of properties that have recently sold. It is considered to be illegal by the State Tax Commission.
Randall, who has a background in finance and banking, challenged the assessment, ultimately taking her case to the state level and winning. But it took three long years, during which she learned such unfair assessments were common throughout Portage.
“We had a refund from the city for over $21,000 of overpaid taxes. When I went to the county to pick up the check, (Kalamazoo County Treasurer) Mary Balkema said to me, ‘So, you’ve settled your case. Now what are you going to do for others?’” Randall recalls. “It kind of redefined what I was all about. So I got to thinking, and I ran for City Council.”
She won that election and re-election and spent eight years as a councilwoman before successfully running for the mayor’s job in 2017.
What made you decide to run for mayor?
I believe real change starts at the top and you can’t have it unless you really go in and clean house. Our directors were all male, all white and had all been there in excess of three decades. So there was very little change in this organization; even our city manager was only the third one in the life of the city. The first two years I was on the council, I was isolated on the board. At first it was always 6-to-1 votes. I started to get some support from Jim Pearson, and it became 5-to-2 votes and slowly change came to the council.
I think of myself as a public servant. I am not doing this to seek higher office. I’m not doing this for the pay. I’m doing this because I like to see change and I’d like to see progress.
Have you seen progress?
Yes. For example, we have several new people on our council who have brought new ideas, especially involving technology. We have done more investing in technology in the past three years than we did in the previous 30.
When I first came to the council, the only way we posted our meetings was on paper under the glass in a case in front of City Hall. That might’ve been effective during the Pony Express days, but it certainly wasn’t effective now. I asked for that information to be put on our website and I was met with total resistance, resistance, resistance. Well, today you can get not only our meeting minutes and our agenda online, you can get them in video form and the archives are there as well. The entire packet that I receive to prep for our meetings is available to the public — every single word of it, every single document. We’ve come so far, and we just couldn’t have done that without technology.
What’s your next challenge?
What I’m most passionate about today is our new senior center. Currently seniors make up nearly 14 percent of Portage’s population, and that (percentage) will double in 10 years. They’re calling it the “silver tsunami.” The current Portage Senior Center was built in 1981 and has been offering support and socialization opportunities for our seniors, but we are so stressed for space. Our director, Kim Phillips, is phenomenal and has brought in Aging With Dignity classes, speakers and different programs, but there’s only so much she can do with our limited space. If we had more dedicated space for different things, more people could participate.
So we are going to be launching a capital campaign later this fall to raise $5.5 million to transform the senior center. We want to do this without a new millage request, so we are seeking philanthropic support from local donors, businesses and known regional philanthropists.
What do you like the most about what you’re doing?
I just love change, and I think that we’re moving in the right direction on a lot of different fronts. I am all about productivity. I know I have a two-year term and I like to see things happen. I’m not a coaster. I don’t tread. I swim, I run, I’m always moving, and that’s my personality and when I’m the happiest.
I had breast cancer six years ago, and if it’s given me anything, it was to be really in the moment and not think about the next stage of your day or dinner or whatever. It gives you a different perspective on life and the journey of it and empathy with others that are going through different things in and out of their control.
And it does give you a sense of urgency. I just want to keep doing things, and I don’t want to stop moving.