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Macomb County

May 7, 2014

SMART millage vote set for August

By Eric Czarnik
C & G Staff Writer

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SMART millage vote set for August
A SMART bus follows its route on Van Dyke Avenue in Sterling Heights.
Mike Griffin, of Detroit, waits for the 12:53 p.m. SMART bus along southbound Van Dyke, just south of 16 Mile Road, in Sterling Heights.
 

Macomb County residents will decide this August on whether to increase their taxes to keep supporting bus transportation services in the county under the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation.

On April 17, the Macomb County Board of Commissioners voted 9-3, with one abstention, to let voters decide on a SMART millage question, which will appear on the ballot this August. Commissioner Michael Boyle, D-St. Clair Shores, was the abstention.

The proposal, if approved by voters, would renew a 0.59 mill levy for public transportation and also tack on a 0.41 mill increase, bringing the tax to 1 mill.

If county voters approve the proposal, a homeowner with a home that has taxable value of $63,000 — the average for Macomb County — would pay an extra $26 per year in property taxes, according to calculations provided by the Macomb County Equalization Department.

According to SMART marketing and communications manager Beth Gibbons, the proposed millage increase is supposed to bring in around $112 million of additional revenue over four years — if passed in all three counties.

She said SMART is asking the tri-county area for more funding because the drop in property values has decreased revenue in recent years. As a result, the organization cumulatively lost about $48 million between 2008 and 2013, she said.

“We did everything we could to try to combat those expenses by taking wage cuts, and we made some budget adjustments of about $11 million, reducing head counts and streamlining our operations and negotiating with the unions,” she said.

“We cut away as much as we could with that. We also had to reduce services in 2011 by 22 percent through the tri-county area.”

Gibbons added that SMART is required to have balanced budgets, and she also said an estimated 196 buses are past their useful life and need replacement.

She explained that the proposal will be on the August primary ballot in all three counties, and the voters’ decisions will be respected according to each county.

She hopes voters will see the value of public transportation, especially for 1.8 million seniors and people with disabilities.

“It’s really important for people who have no other way of getting themselves to work or to school or to medical appointments,” she said. “Without SMART, they don’t have a way to get to those programs.”

State Rep. Jeff Farrington, R-Utica, said he was not in favor of a SMART millage increase.

“I just don’t believe that SMART has benefited the general public as much as it costs,” he said.

Macomb County Commissioner Robert Mijac, D-Sterling Heights, said he voted earlier at the Finance Committee level to put the millage question on the November general election ballot instead of the August primary election. That proposal failed, and the Finance Committee ultimately approved the choice of August.

Mijac said past millage ballot questions involving the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Institute of Arts were also placed on the primary ballot. But he said a primary election only brings an estimated turnout of 20 percent or so, compared to around a 50 percent turnout for a general election in a gubernatorial year.

He believes that a November ballot question would have given more voters a chance to weigh in on the proposal.

“The proponents of a ballot initiative want it to pass, so the conventional wisdom out there is that sometimes certain ballot initiatives have a better chance of passing in certain elections,” he said.

“Everybody pays taxes — not just the people who vote in a 20 percent turnout election.”

After the April 17 meeting, Board Chair Dave Flynn, D-Sterling Heights, praised SMART.

“SMART is a vital resource for people all over the Detroit area who rely on it to get to and from work and school every day,” he said. “The commission’s action gives Macomb County voters the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to support this new millage proposal.”

Learn more about SMART by visiting www.smartbus.org or by calling (866) 962-5515.

Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski contributed to this report.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Eric Czarnik at eczarnik@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1058.