A service that provides rides to those living in Oxford, Addison and Orion townships who are unable to drive themselves due to age, health or economic circumstances is asking voters to lend it a helping hand when they go to the polls on Tuesday, Aug. 7.
The North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA) has millage renewal requests on the ballot in all three townships.
In Oxford Township, the amount requested is 0.2409 mill to be levied from 2019 to 2023.
Addison voters are being asked to approve a 0.2419-mill tax for five years, beginning in 2020 and ending in 2024.
In Orion, the requested amount is 0.2405 mill. It would be levied from 2019 to 2023.
All of these requests are strictly renewals, not increases.
“One hundred percent of those tax dollars are going to directly benefit the residents of Orion, Oxford and Addison,” said NOTA Director Lynn Gustafson.
Established in 2001, NOTA provides low-cost, publicly-subsidized transportation for senior citizens, individuals with physical and/or developmental disabilities, and low-income folks living in the three townships and their respective villages.
If all three millage proposals pass, they’re expected to generate a combined $695,154 in their first year.
“This millage is extremely important. The millage (represents) 48 percent of our total budget,” Gustafson said.
NOTA’s operating budget for 2018 is $1.437 million.
When it comes to the millage proposals, Gustafson said things have been pretty quiet.
“The only comments I’ve heard so far are from our riders who are very concerned about losing service,” she said. “They’re concerned if this doesn’t go through, it’s going to affect their lives drastically.”
For what is NOTA used?
NOTA riders are driven to appointments with doctors and physical therapists, dialysis treatments, senior centers, church services, grocery stores, counseling appointments and therapy sessions, work training, community events, the Oxford-Orion FISH food pantry and hair appointments.
“Many of our riders have no other options for transportation. They’d be homebound (without NOTA). They don’t have friends or family to rely on,” said Gustafson, who’s been director since 2012. “We hear stories every day (from) people who are in need. I think if NOTA wasn’t there to help them, they would really be in crisis.”
One of those people is Brian McAskin, a 62-year-old Addison Township resident who has multiple sclerosis and is legally blind.
“I’d be in a world of hurt (without NOTA),” he said
McAskin uses NOTA three to four times a week to transport him to numerous appointments with doctors and physical therapists
“It’s extremely valuable for my health and state of mind . . . and to keep my strength up,” he said.
McAskin’s been using NOTA’s services for about 15 years. His wife works full-time and his children are grown and out of the house, so he relies heavily on NOTA’s vehicles and drivers.
“It’s an absolutely wonderful service to have,” he said.
There was a five-month period in 2015 when NOTA stopped providing rides to Addison residents as a result of its operating millages failing there twice in 2014.
“That was not easy on me at all,” McAskin said. “It was very difficult. I could not get to my therapy as needed. It’s imperative that I do my physical therapy and work at the gym.”
Services resumed following Addison voters’ approval of the NOTA millage in May 2015.
Lake Orion resident Bruce Webster is in the same boat as McAskin.
The 65-year-old became wheelchair-bound due to cancer and for the last four months, he has relied on NOTA “for everything,” from getting him to his twice-a-week physical therapy appointments at Beaumont Hospital in Troy to going to lunch with his business associates to visiting the dentist.
“I really don’t know what I’d do without it,” Webster said. “I wouldn’t be in physical therapy if it weren’t for NOTA.”
Lake Orion resident Sheila Kleine, 76, views NOTA as “a lifesaver.”
She became a regular rider last August after giving up her vehicle. She can no longer drive due to macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease that leads to vision loss.
Kleine relies on NOTA to take her to the Orion Center, to the Great Lakes Athletic Club to exercise, to medical appointments and to the grocery store.
“I use them a lot,” she said.
Kleine needs NOTA to help her stay active.
“I’ve never been one to sit idle,” she said. “If I sat in this apartment, day after day, I would become very depressed. It’s a nice apartment, but people need to get out and socialize.”
“What NOTA affords me is independence,” Kleine continued. “I can schedule a trip to the grocery store or go work out. I don’t have to justify it to anybody or impose on (family and friends). I just need to schedule it with NOTA.”
Last year, NOTA provided a total of 38,859 rides.
Most of those rides were given to residents of Orion (18,672) and Oxford (18,094). The remaining 2,093 rides went to residents of Addison and the Village of Leonard.
Senior citizens, with and without disabilities, accounted for the largest number of rides, a total of 16,688.
That was followed by 15,534 for individuals with physical and developmental disabilities and 6,637 rides for low-income folks.
Last year’s 38,859 rides represented a 15 percent increase (4,980 rides) from 2016.
“Our ridership has been increasing,” Gustafson said.
NOTA vehicles are currently on the road a combined 694 hours a week. There are 15 vehicles running on a daily basis Monday through Friday, plus two vehicles each day on Saturday and Sunday.
Last year, NOTA drivers logged a total of 484,149 miles on the road – 48,077 miles more than in 2016. NOTA currently has 29 part-time drivers, three part-time dispatchers and 21 vehicles.
NOTA charges its users $1 each way for rides within the three townships and $2 each way for destinations outside the townships, but still within the authority’s 223-square-mile service area.
“We (provide) an extremely valuable service for a very low cost,” Gustafson said.
What happens if these millages fail?
If all three millages fail, Gustafson said it would have dramatic impact on NOTA and the level of service it’s able to provide.
“We would have to lay off at least six drivers,” she said. “We’d go from 15 to nine (vehicles on the road Monday through Friday).”
Under those conditions, Gustafson estimated NOTA would only be able to provide approximately 24,000 rides annually.
“The need is increasing, so if we have to decrease our routes, it’s going to affect everybody across the board – people getting to work, people going to dialysis, doctors’ appointments, shopping. It’s going to limit their opportunities to get a ride,” she said.
“I think it would be a shameful loss to the community (if that happened),” Webster said. “It would be a huge loss to the people that use this (service).”
Kleine doesn’t even want to think about the possibility of losing NOTA.
“It makes me want to cry,” she said. “I really don’t know what I would do . . . I would be lost. I don’t want to be stuck in my apartment . . . I can’t believe anybody would not support it.”
Gustafson doesn’t want to see anybody lose something they need so much.
“I believe the seniors, disabled and low-income residents deserve this essential service,” she said.
Gustafson hopes voters will keep in mind that even if they don’t use NOTA now, many of their neighbors do and someday, they may join them.
“You never know when you might need it yourself,” she said. “I just encourage everyone to get out and vote on Aug. 7.”