Topsy-Turvy Transit: Where Do We Go From Here? III
Continuing a retrospective of AATA’s countywide transit authority efforts, with a look ahead.
In the first post of this series, we described AATA’s decision to “catapult” the authority into its hoped-for transition to a countywide service by advance implementation of several services. This meant that AATA passed a deficit budget for FY 2012 (which began in October 2011). At the time, it was clearly expected that this bold leap would be for one year only. As we reported at the time, it was evident that the intention was to ask voters to approve a property tax millage in the November 2012 election. Assuming that was approved, there would have been a funding gap between September 2012 (the last month of that fiscal year) and July 2013 (when taxes for the next year would be collected). We commented,
But the AATA, which uses the Federal tax year (October-October), would have to pass a new budget in September 2012 in advance of the millage vote. So not only will the AATA have to pass a new year’s budget without a certainty that a countywide millage will pass, but three-quarters of a year will pass before revenue will be realized from a successful millage vote.
And indeed, September 2012 rolled around and a new budget was passed. As the Ann Arbor Chronicle reported, the AATA finished the year with a deficit of over $1 million. (Note: the deficit is the difference between revenues and expenses; this does not reflect a negative fund balance overall.)
And so the AATA began another fiscal year with a deficit budget (this time the projected deficit is about $300,000). That was partly because of a reduction in state formula support, as detailed in an expanded report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle. But they had a bigger problem: the possibility of new revenue had been pushed much farther out toward the horizon than anticipated. Instead of a November millage vote, they were instead only now preparing to incorporate the Washtenaw Ride (that request to Washtenaw County would take place October 2) and after an opt-out window, would ask countywide voters to pass a property tax millage, perhaps in a May 2013 election.
From the Chronicle’s first brief account:
At the board’s Sept. 27 meeting, board treasurer David Nacht was keen to stress that various initiatives in which the AATA has invested in the past year and in this next year’s budget could not be sustained without the kind of additional funding that could come from a countywide authority.
Of course, just the next month, as we have described, most communities in the county opted out, and the “countywide authority” vanished into a puff of smoke.
What could go wrong?
From the beginning, the AATA’s quest for a countywide (Act 196) authority has been powered by magical thinking. A number of assumptions were made, one of which is that no obstacle was insurmountable. But really, if only one of these assumptions was in error, they were in trouble. The other items of faith:
Local governments will opt in (didn’t happen).
Voters will support a new millage (irrelevant at this point).
Required documents (4-party, Articles of Incorporation) passed by City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, along with the City of Ypsilanti quickly, for a November 2012 millage vote (final sign-off by the BOC in September, much too late).
Changes in Federal transit funding would not affect them negatively (see the memo by Chris White; loss of discretionary funds; still some uncertainly with the Federal budget sequestration).
But if not the greatest miscalculation, certainly a major one was the mis-estimation of the effect of Washtenaw County’s inclusion in the Regional Transit Authority for SE Michigan. As explained here, a package of bills passed in the lame-duck session of the Michigan Legislature and has been signed into law by Governor Snyder. This is a succinct summary of the main package. (The detailed discussion of the effects of Washtenaw County’s inclusion will be in a later post.) We speculated a year ago that then-Board Chair Jesse Bernstein expected that a vehicle license fee associated with this package might serve instead of a millage to fund the AATA’s expanded authority. He had made some cryptic remarks, like this one at the October 2011 u196 meeting:
“Everyone talks about a millage, but I’m hoping that the Governor will light a candle over the weekend.”
Earlier, there was this exchange at the September 2011 Planning and Development Committee meeting (discussing the deficit budget later voted in by the Board):
Rich Robben: We won’t be able to follow this mechanism (dipping into reserves) next year. We’d better pull some rabbits out of a hat.
Michael Ford: I’m looking at finding some rabbits.
All this became clear once the package of bills was revealed in January 2012. SB 910 provided for any county to assess a vehicle license fee, upon passage of a measure by the county BOC and approval by the voters. The bill provides for up to $1.80 per $1,000 vehicle list price to be assessed in addition to all other vehicle license fees, and paid to the county treasurer for transportation purposes. However, if the county were in the RTA, the amount of the fee would be reduced by the fees paid to the RTA.
Right up to the issuance of the final 5-year plan, AATA staff apparently had hoped that this source of revenue might replace the need for a millage. But the plan acknowledges that the millage appears to be the only option.
The RTA package was delayed past the initiation of Washtenaw Ride, so the vehicle license fee did not materialize in time–or ever. When the RTA package was finally passed in the last days of the 2012 lame-duck session, SB 910 was not included. The only vehicle license fee included in the final package is that which will support the RTA itself, most likely to initiate Governor Snyder’s dream of Bus Rapid Transit connector routes.
So – after 18 months of intense effort, the AATA finds itself highly leveraged, over-extended, and with no immediate source of new revenue. And in addition, it has an extra layer of complication introduced with the inclusion of Washtenaw County in SB 909, establishing the SE Michigan Regional Authority.
Next: What now?
Explore posts in the same categories: civic finance, politics, Transportation