Bloomfield Hills says no to SMART ballot prop

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published June 24, 2015

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BLOOMFIELD HILLS — The City Commission voted against putting a millage on the city’s next election ballot to support Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation services.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re putting the brakes on public transit options in the future, some commissioners say.

The topic surfaced back in May, when Commissioner Patricia Hardy suggested that the city invite the bus service provider to the commission’s next meeting, June 9, for a presentation to explain what services could potentially be available to residents.

She, Mayor Michael Dul and City Manager Jay Cravens had already met with SMART to discuss the issue, but Hardy said the whole commission should hear the information.

Despite some pushback, the commission agreed to hear the presentation, and at the regularly scheduled June meeting, Madonna Van Fossen, Oakland County ombudsman for SMART, and Robert Cramer, director of administrative services for SMART, appeared before the commission.

Though all of the commissioners agreed that the duo gave a good presentation, the board still voted 3-2 against developing ballot language for the next election to request a millage to support the bus service.

“I think it was really cost and perceived need,” said Cravens following the meeting. “I think the two presenters definitely made the argument that they’re not a line-haul bus service anymore. But the cost of 1 mill in a community of our size, with a very low (number of) users, if at all — the cost for the city and/or the taxpayer is pretty substantial when you talk about a mill.”

Cravens explained that the cost to opt into the service would be $766,172 annually, which would cost the average homeowner between $300 and $400.

Commissioner Sarah McClure led the dissent against SMART, saying at the meeting that there are just other priorities facing the city at this time that resources should be directed to.

She added that when residents were surveyed for the city’s master plan in 2012, there wasn’t a strong interest in public transit as a city service offering. Those who do need a lift, McClure suggested, could partake in pay-per-use transportation like Lyft and Uber.

Then there was the concern about whether SMART is so smart when it comes to managing finances.

“I did some looking, and they have about $229 million in pension and retiree health care liabilities,” McClure said to the Eagle following the meeting. “I do wonder, if we were locked in, would we be responsible for that?”

Commissioner Stuart Sherr said he voted against the SMART issue largely because of the topics that McClure articulated at the meeting.

“I completely agree with her. It’s a simple cost/benefit analysis, and we believe the costs greatly outweigh the benefits. It’s really very simple. And I am concerned, as well, because I believe it’s likely some of the monies we would pay would go towards their legacy costs, and they’re underfunded,” he said.

Van Fossen disputed in an email that SMART is in financial trouble.

“While SMART does have long-term liabilities, we make payments on them as prescribed by financial standards followed by the government organizations across the region and the country,” she said.

Van Fossen added that the “no” vote wouldn’t directly impact SMART services, though including Bloomfield Hills — which is referred to by some as a “doughnut hole” in the middle of communities who have opted in — would make delivery more efficient.

She also added that she has heard from business owners, residents and “members of a local congregation” about public transit woes in the city.

“The concerns expressed include safety issues — having to walk up and down Woodward is too dangerous. It would be so convenient not having to drive, accessibility from other community residents wanting to come to Bloomfield Hills who don’t drive,” said Van Fossen in the email.

Commissioner Hardy can be counted among those with concerns about walking along Woodward. An advocate for safety paths along M-1 in the past, she voted in favor of the SMART ballot initiative, too.

“I think if there were a millage vote, a vote of the people, then we would know for sure whether this is something the residents think is worth paying for or not,” Hardy said at the meeting. “Twenty years ago, Bloomfield Hills was a different place. Right now, you have a lot more commercial (properties). You have a continuing care center; people are going to want to come visit people there. I think demand is going to be greater.”

Hardy and Dul — the two supporting votes — both named seniors and millennials as growing populations that might be interested in public transportation. They also, despite some dissent from the crowd, argued that Bloomfield Hills might not be as privileged as perceived.

“I think it’s all about need,” said Dul at the meeting. “What does our community really need? I can’t give you an answer. Will there be more and more elderly in a couple years that really, truly need to have transportation? Not everybody’s wealthy and has their Mercedes and their butlers to drive them to the airport. Our community isn’t all that wealthy across the board.”

That was the sentiment that resident Paul Von Oeyen shared when he took his turn at the podium.

“I think we’re all privileged to be living in the city of Bloomfield Hills. When we talk about the cost and we say 1 mill is such an excessive cost, I find it interesting that somehow all the other (municipalities) along the Woodward corridor seem to be able to vote for it and afford it, and many are not as privileged as those of us living in Bloomfield Hills,” he said. “Sometimes we need to not think just about ourselves. And sometimes we might all get old or get disabled or something. We need to think about those people, too.”

Resident Don Stuef, quickly and to the point, disagreed.

“This is all humbug,” he said. “We have problems on our roads. I think this is a waste of time and waste of money. We’re a different community. We’re more automotive.”

With the crowd and the commission clearly divided, it was Commissioner Mike Coakley who split the vote that night. He explained that he was unconvinced that SMART and other transportation organizations, like the Regional Transportation Authority, would be able to work together at any point, as they have all proposed, to make a more unified and efficient system.

“We have a very fractured transportation system,” Coakley said. “I went to a meeting for RTA. Now I’ve listened to you. So far, I haven’t heard you come up with a solution for that. It seems to me that everyone in the system (is) trying to protect their own turf.”

McClure said that would be the ideal hope for a transit system for the city in the future.

“We would like RTA and SMART and the Detroit system to do more to make the current system work and solve problems between them. That’s what makes sense,” she said. “Residents have articulated to me they’d like to see existing systems become more efficient.”

While not much information has been made available about the RTA’s plans for transit in Bloomfield Hills, a rapid transit system along Woodward has been rumored. It’s also been discussed that the authority might go out for countywide millage proposals in November 2016.

The RTA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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