With a public transportation millage being approved in November, each community in Oakland County must now pay taxes to support public transportation services.

With a public transportation millage being approved in November, each community in Oakland County must now pay taxes to support public transportation services.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Some local residents will be taxed less, some more, with passage of county transit millage

SMART has no timeline yet, will share service plan ‘after public engagement concludes’

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published December 16, 2022

KEEGO HARBOR/ORCHARD LAKE/SYLVAN LAKE — Residents in Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake and Sylvan Lake can expect to see an increase in their winter tax bills for at least the next 10 years.

Each of those communities previously opted out of services provided by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation and other public transportation agencies, but the general election ballot Nov. 8 included the Oakland County Public Transportation Millage, which was approved by county residents.

With that approval, Oakland County is now authorized to levy a millage for the purpose of funding transportation services throughout Oakland County.

On a county-wide basis, 336,901 residents voted for the millage, with 253,095 residents opposed.

In Keego Harbor, 622 residents voted yes for the millage, with 483 voting no; in Sylvan Lake, 549 residents voted yes, with 520 voting no; and in Orchard Lake, the millage received 736 no votes, compared to 519 residents who voted for it.

Prior to the millage, West Bloomfield Township was already an opt-in community. The millage was approved in 23 of the 26 precincts in West Bloomfield in November.

Before the millage passed, each community in Oakland County could decide if it wanted to opt in or opt out of the public transportation system.

But with voters approving the latest measure, each community in Oakland County is now required to opt in.

Residents in communities that opted in prior to the millage passing paid 1 mill in taxes for public transportation services. Residents in Oakland County will now pay into a 0.95 mill collection, which is 95 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value of a home, for 10 years.

One of the prime reasons some communities previously opted out reportedly was low public transportation ridership in their respective communities, and opponents said that everyone in the community shouldn’t have to pay taxes for a service not being utilized by the vast majority of residents.

Prior to the general election, Orchard Lake Mayor Norm Finkelstein stated his opposition to the millage, and his stance has not changed.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we can no longer opt out,” Finkelstein said. “I believe that our residents and residents in other communities will be shocked when they see how much this is going to cost them. I’ve already had some concerns expressed from people who weren’t expecting this large increase on the winter tax bills. I’m looking forward to trying to find out how this will in some way benefit the city of Orchard Lake, because there’s no plan in place for spending all this money — they’ve said that.”

Based on taxable values in Orchard Lake, Finkelstein estimated that residents will pay an annual average of $500 due to the millage passing.

“That’s just an average,” he said. “Some will be way higher than that; some may be a little less. But it’s an astounding amount, and I don’t believe that there’s a plan to properly use it for anything that will be to our benefit.”

Dave Woodward, who is the chairman of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, authored and sponsored the millage proposal.

“I think this is an exciting moment, where the voters of Oakland County clearly said that we want to move the conversation forward, away from whether or not some people have access to transit, to how do we make transit better for everyone? And I think the overwhelming public support — including areas that some of the local leaders thought their residents didn’t support — but clearly they did when they showed up and voted,” Woodward said.

Woodward responded to the viewpoint some have that whether or not to opt into public transportation services should be a community-by-community decision.

“A transit system is an essential public service that we need to make available to all people — for people to get to jobs, for people to get to health care — and just like road infrastructure or a county parks and rec situation, we all have a responsibility to play a role in making certain that people have the means … (to) get to the places they need, and to the extent possible, ideally, want to go,” Woodward said.

With the millage having passed, Sylvan Lake Councilman Ben Clarke prefers to look on the “bright side.”

“I think that it could bring more employment into the city,” Clarke said. “There are a lot of people who live outside of the city that do work in the city, and we’ve had a lot of businesses struggle to find employees, especially during daytime hours, so I’m hoping that a bus stop or some public transit could help move people through the city. Then there’s also the aspect of us having (an) aging population, so I believe that the transit plan is to help people who are older get rides to appointments and things like that. As people age, it’s safer for them if they have health conditions to take some sort of transit, rather than drive.”

Via an email, SMART provided details about some of the specifics that come with the millage passing.

One of the areas addressed is when public transportation services will begin in communities that previously opted out.

“There aren’t any schedules for the previous opt-out communities at this time,” SMART stated. “We are working with the county to develop a public engagement plan that will be presented to the community, and we look forward to every opportunity to receive public feedback. … SMART will conduct extensive public engagement to talk with communities about the type of service needed, and this will shape the creation of schedules.”

The email also stated that SMART is responsible for creating and disseminating route and schedule information through printed and technological distribution channels.

SMART is also responsible for the creation and implementation of bus stops in communities that previously opted out, once a public engagement plan is created, according to the email.

As for a timeframe, SMART stated, “After public engagement concludes, we will work in collaboration with Oakland County to develop a timeline to share the finished strategy with the public as soon as possible.”

At some point, Woodward anticipates that an official Oakland County transit office will be formed, which will include a staff to help facilitate contracts and develop policy for deploying resources across the county.

“January, next year, we envision to have the contracts approved with the local transit agencies — SMART, as well as the Older Persons’ Commission (in Rochester), North Oakland Transit Authority and Western Oakland Transit Authority  to maintain everything they’re currently doing and provide some resources to allow for quick expansion,” Woodward said.

From Woodward’s perspective, how everything goes is dependent upon funding, vehicles and drivers.

Due to the millage passing, Oakland County will have funding.

However, securing enough vehicles to implement the plan envisioned, as well as having enough employees to make it work, may turn out to be the bigger challenges.

“We’re working with our transit partners to try to get their hands on as many vehicles as possible, so that we can procure them,” Woodward said. “Supply chain issues, just like the auto industry, also impacts bus vehicles. Larger vehicles take a little bit longer in the procurement process to get, to order and then to actually have them. And then just like every industry across the country, labor challenges to get the employees to do this is going to take some time. All these agencies are implementing different strategies to bring in more drivers, have them trained and get them doing the service, so I expect substantial growth … over the course of the year.”

With the millage passing, it is estimated that $66,163,000 will be collected in the first year, with the expenditure of revenue from the millage to be subject to oversight by the Oakland County Board of Commissioners and to independent audits.

“We took action to place it on the winter tax bill, so the revenue from that will be incoming in February,” Woodward said. “How millages are funded, that’s pretty quick, but February seems like it’s a long ways away.”

Revenue from the millage is set to be distributed to Oakland County, SMART, the North Oakland Transportation Authority, the Older Persons’ Commission and the Western Oakland Transportation Authority.

Finkelstein is of the opinion that the money raised could be utilized more effectively than the current plan that is in place.

“We are being forced to subsidize communities elsewhere in the county, and to subsidize empty buses, or virtually empty buses, which is what everybody has observed,” he said. “I think that the millions of dollars they’re going to raise could be spent maybe (on) door-to-door van service for people that need it, rather than these buses running around. I just think people are gonna be astounded when they see what’s happening here.”

Although Clarke is a proponent of individual communities making their own decisions in some instances, from his perspective, that shouldn’t be the case when it comes to a public transportation system.

“There’s certain things that are necessary for public good,” he said. “I think to the extent that a city has the ability to opt out of things without damaging the greater public good, they should have that — that should be preserved to the greatest degree. But there are things, and I think this is one of those cases, where it’s not a system that can work without everyone being a part of it.”