The Spinal Column

Opinions vary on transit millage vote




Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter hosted an October 13 roundtable in Pontiac to educate residents about the benefits of the county-wide mass transit system to be funded by a .95 millage. County residents will be voting on the millage on the November ballot.

Later that day, the county executive offered an informational telephone town hall, whereby residents called in to ask questions about the millage.

A key benefit, Coulter said, is that public transit will provide residents access to major employment areas in the county not currently served by mass transportation. Additionally, he said, the funds collected from the millage will expand the services currently provided by SMART, Western Oakland Transportation Authority (WOTA), North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA), and Older Persons’ Commission (OPC).

Roundtable participants included Lauren Baker, Public Policy and Outreach Specialist for Disability Network Eastern Michigan; Pamela Campbell, former business owner and Southfield resident; Adam Jenovi, Chief Operating Officer for Oakland Community Health Network; Lukas
Lesecki, Oakland Community College student; and Kermit Williams, co-Director of Oakland Forward and former Pontiac City Council president. Those speaking at the town hall included Coulter, SMART General Manager Dwight Ferrell, and Highland Township Supervisor and WOTA Board President Rick Hamill.

Coulter admitted that those participating in the roundtable and townhall have a vested interest in a mass transit program.

But not all local leaders view public transit as a positive. White Lake Township residents will not get back what they put in to the county’s proposed mass transit program. That was the message Trustee Mike Powell conveyed to both in-person and virtual attendees at the September 20 regular board meeting. “In fact, most communities in western and northern Oakland county will receive zero benefit from the millage,” he said. Powell also pointed out that .95 mills means each homeowner will pay $1.00 per thousand dollars of the taxable value of his or her home. “That money will go to Oakland County to be spent the way they want, not the way White Lake Township wants.”

“I realize some are resisting this because they see this as another tax, but a millage was bound to be passed at some point, either at a township level or county level,” said Hamill during the telephone town hall.

Coulter said during the roundtable that the millage will cost taxpayers about $9 per month, on average. “And if you already are in a community where you pay a SMART tax, the new millage will replace that,” he explained. “The current SMART millage is 1.0 mills and the proposed .95
mills is actually a reduction. And residents should know that money raised from the Oakland County millage will stay in Oakland County.”

White Lake, along with Highland and Waterford Townships and the City of Walled Lake, already receive public transportation services from the Western Oakland Transportation Authority (WOTA). The proposed millage would bring in $5.9 million – $1.3 from White Lake alone – and $2 million of that will be put back into WOTA.

Currently, WOTA is funded through township contributions from general funds, the Walled Lake SMART millage, state funding, and grants. White Lake spends approximately $200,000 annually for WOTA. “Spending more will not result in any more benefit than we have right
now,” said Powell. “And residents will be paying for transportation to who knows where, because no routes have been established yet.”

Coulter said during the roundtable that, should the millage pass, all Oakland County residents will have access to a transit system that will be integrated and comprehensive to go anywhere in the county. “At the end of the day, every community will be included,” he said. “This is because
this is the first time voters are being asked to vote on an all-count opt in. Previously, communities had the ability to op in or out of transit service.”

Kim Viener, director of WOTA, stated in press release last month: “Regardless of the outcome of the millage, we expect to maintain the same service. However, we are actively watching and creating alternative plans if the millage is successful.”

She told The Spinal Column that these plans are all dependent on getting more vehicles. “Without more vehicles we cannot take on any more than what we do right now, so the phase-in expansions are dependent on when we can get those vehicles. After that, we will need more
drivers. So, once both those assets are acquired we will be expanding hours for our current communities and talking with the surrounding communities to create a phase-in for providing service.”

She added that WOTA is working with NOTA and OPC to create phase-in processes for the non-covered areas to ensure all communities receive service for the millage funds. “There are no guarantees that the millage will pass,” said Hamill, in the press release. “But it would be foolish not to prepare either way. If the opportunity to expand services is available, WOTA has ideas of how that service might look. Consequently, if the millage passes, we will not be caught flat-footed.”

In fact, during the telephone townhall, Hamill said: “Mass transit is needed and should the millage pass, this will be a way to get transportation to communities faster so we will work in every way we can to partner with the county to make it happen.”

White Lake Township Supervisor Rik Kowall said he is not sure how a mass transit system will pan out, but does believe that the intention of mass transit is a good one. “This board firmly believes in transportation and has been 100 percent on board for WOTA. I appreciate the
intention of the county.”

Voters will have the final say in November, and both Powell and Kowall urge residents to continue to educate themselves on all ballot issues. “I leave it up to the residents, but I want them to know this is a very important millage,” said Powell. “It’s critical you become informed about
what you are being asked to vote on because money will be coming out of your pocket.”

White Lake plans to launch an educational campaign within the next few weeks to explain the millage and what it will mean to residents.

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