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SMART millage passes easily in Oakland County with narrow victory in Macomb

Pending final results, on track to also pass in Wayne County

By: Joshua Gordon | C&G Newspapers | Published August 8, 2018

 The SMART millage looks on pace to pass in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

The SMART millage looks on pace to pass in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

Photo by Donna Agusti

METRO DETROIT — The millage renewal for the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation passed in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties Aug. 7 during the primary election. It was a close call in Macomb County after a group came out opposed to the tax a month before the election.

The proposal asked voters to approve a 1-mill property tax assessment to support SMART for the next four years. The proposal is a renewal of a millage already in effect, but it will slightly raise the rate in Macomb and Oakland counties because the rate has rolled back a small amount since the last renewal in 2014.

In Oakland County, the proposal acquired more than 77 percent of the votes in favor, according to unofficial results with all precincts reporting. In Wayne County, voters approved the proposal with nearly 74 percent of the vote, with all precincts reporting by Aug. 8.

However, in Macomb County, the proposal passed by only 23 votes, with 77,502 votes in favor and 77,479 votes against. The Macomb County Clerk’s Office reported that the results were still unofficial at press time Aug. 8, with all precincts reporting.

SMART General Manager John Hertel said he was pleased that the proposal passed in all three counties, but was perplexed by the close race in Macomb County. Of the voters who went to the polls, more were in favor of the millage, but 57 percent of the absentee ballots were against it.

“At SMART, we are thrilled with receiving over 70 percent of the support from Wayne and Oakland County citizens, especially when they are voting with the pocketbooks and wallets to fund us,” Hertel said in a statement Aug. 8. “We are also very happy with 55 percent of yesterday’s election day voters supporting us in Macomb County with their yes votes. Frankly, when looking at the negative absentee vote compared to all the other votes, it is confusing.”

In 2014, voters in all three counties approved an increase for the SMART millage, going from 0.59 mill to 1 mill, with around 66 percent of residents voting “yes” across the three counties.

Hertel said the 47 routes that SMART operates service nearly 70,000 businesses that account for around 850,000 jobs. In Oakland County, only 24 communities have opted into the system, with 38 having opted out in the past. Meanwhile, all 27 communities in Macomb County are part of the system.

In July, a group called Nothing Smart About SMART, led by Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, asked Macomb County voters to vote against the SMART millage renewal. Drolet said SMART is not used by enough people in Macomb County to justify the taxes to support it and feels there is a better way to support seniors, disabled people and those without vehicles to get around.

The group suggested transit cards could be issued to those people who qualified, and those cards could be used on services such as Uber or Lyft, or a taxi. The cards, the group proposed, would be funded from current taxes paying 75 percent of the cost and the users paying the other 25 percent.

Drolet said he is not giving up on the SMART millage not being passed, as the results could be subject to a recount if either side files for it. But he said he was surprised by the turnout and realized his group didn’t reach out to every type of voter who went to the polls.

“Voters are certainly not convinced they are getting value from SMART,” Drolet said. “We know we have to be able to communicate with a wider group of voters, as this was an unusual election. You had groups of people walk in to vote who maybe this was their first time voting in a primary or haven’t voted in a while.”

Representatives from SMART, Macomb County and Oakland County held a press conference in May because they feared voters would look at the SMART proposal and think it had to do with the Regional Transit Authority, which had a millage voted down in November 2016. Voters voted against a 1.2-mill proposal that aimed to add high-speed transportation between Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said after the Aug. 7 results that he is not claiming victory yet, because he expects a challenge. Hackel said Nothing Smart About SMART used the confusion between SMART and the RTA to get people to vote against the millage, but if the victory stands, having SMART in Macomb County is a benefit to all residents.

“This was not surprising to me at all, as I have been talking about this for the last year and a half and it has fell on deaf ears,” Hackel said. “I knew the opposition would feed off the confusion, but residents need to realize the fact that this passed is nothing more than a basic renewal for something that has been important for us for decades.

“This is truly an asset to Macomb County specifically. This has nothing to do with paying for Detroit or Wayne County, but this is money coming back to our county to help people in need of transportation options.”