Still questioning after tele-town hall: county transit millage

By Don Rush

You voters in north Oakland County have an interesting challenge before you. Do you support the county’s ballot initiative to have a county-wide mass transit system, or not. I’ve talked to a number of present and past township supervisors to say the least, they are not impressed with the idea.

Ever the open-minded, even keeled, incorruptible, stalwart reporter type, I have stayed in the background. Observing. Listening.

Last Thursday night I was privileged to be given the super-secret media-only listen-in phone number to County Executive Dave Coulter’s “tele-town hall meeting” with special guest stars SMART General Manager Dwight Ferrell, and Highland Township Supervisor Rick Hamill, speaking about West Oakland Transportation Authority (WOTA). Five minutes before the 6:30 call, I wolfed down a bowl of spicy beef ramen noodle soup, then after a big drink of water I dialed the phone number and I settled in with trusty pen and notepad in hand to listen and take notes.

Coulter was his cheery self, thanking the almost 8,000 residents who had dialed in to ask questions and hear more about the Oakland County Public Transportation Millage. During that hour 15 listeners were able to ask Coulter, Ferrell or Hamill questions. Two were from Novi, two from Southfield, two from Waterford, then there were callers from Lyon Township, Ferndale, Royal Oak, Sylvan Lake, Pontiac, Bloomfield Township, Springfield Township and someone from “Far North” (wherever that is).

Most were already in favor of the millage passing as they wanted drives from say Novi, to Ann Arbor or Detroit Metro Airport, or even from Orion Township to Pontiac.

The three speakers dutifully answered questions and promoted what could be if the millage passed, adding nothing happens overnight. If the millage passes the new county government department will have to talk to individual communities, determine bus routes, wants and needs. New phone and computer apps will also have to be designed and promoted. Heck, they will even need more buses.

And, that’s where it gets interesting for North Oakland voters, whose communities have opted out of previous county-wide transportation operations and have set up their own, like Independence Township and the communities NOTA (North Oakland Transportation Authority) serves (Oxford, Addison, Orion). If the densely populated southern part of the county all vote for raising taxes to the less-densely populated north – even if you 100 percent vote against — you guys are on the hook. There is no opting out now.

A month ago, former Independence Township Supervisor Pat Kittle, told me he thought the new idea was a money grab.

Groveland Township Supervisor Bob DePalma told our Citizen newspaper he strongly opposes the millage. “We will be completely a donor with absolutely no benefit and no option to get out. This is being pushed through by the (Oakland) county commissioners, but not all of them. We are not going to get diddly-squat out of this. They are going to tax our residents almost the same amount that we pay to run the whole township. It’s going to go to mass transit and we are going to get nothing. If you look at .95 mills for the average home in the township, that’s going to be about $120 (on an average home) a year tax increase . . I don’t like this, I don’t agree with it, they won’t give us an opt out, but we are going to get this jammed down our throats.”

Addison Township Bruce Pearson told me, “I am not really happy about it,” adding he fears if the millage passes the county may have control over the locally operated NOTA. “We don’t want them to get their hands on it. NOTA has the best service of any of the transportation services. “We already pay for the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Zoo and they couldn’t get the Regional Transit Authority passed so it looks like they’re going around the taxpayers.”

With a few tactfully used cuss words, when I asked Oxford Township Supervisor Jack Curtis about the millage proposal a while back, he was also not in favor. “This would be a tax on North Oakland County to help Wayne County. Our economy flourished and our towns are growing. Employment is good up here, we don’t need this. I can’t say it enough. The ones who want this don’t pay any damn taxes. With this we’re buying someone a ride to work just because we bought our homes. Bottom line is, let’s tax the ones who would benefit from this, the non profits, the hospitals, the government non taxing entities. What they want is nothing more than a revitalized bus route. Let them support the damn thing. Not us. Our NOTA serves our community. That’s why we voted for our millage. This thing is not something I want.”

The wording of the proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot reads: A proposal to authorize Oakland County to levy a millage for the purpose of funding public transportation services in Oakland County, including operating, maintaining, improving, and expanding transit services, creating and expanding new fixed routes for bus service connecting local communities, expanding transportation services for seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities, and providing transportation to get employees to jobs, patients to healthcare, students to colleges and universities, for the general public to have more transportation options, and for related purposes authorized by law. This millage would be levied at a maximum rate of .95 mills (95 cents per $1,000 in taxable value) for a period of 10 years beginning in 2022 and ending in 2031. This millage would replace an expiring millage levied by the Oakland County Public Transportation Authority supporting the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), and fund replacement of other local public transportation millages.

What do you think, North Oakland? Everything sounds good in theory, do you believe a re-imagined, county-maintained transit system is what you want, or do you think it’s just gonna be “jammed down” your throats?

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