The Case of the Vanishing Transit Millage

AATA's diagram of the 4-Party Agreement and county authority process. It calls for a millage vote. Click for larger.

The discussion of the Transit Master plan for a county-wide transportation system has revolved around the idea of a county-wide millage.  This has been the presumption from the beginning, and the main psychological pivot point for the Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County communities, as evidenced both by public statements of council members and commentary online.  But as we outlined in our post, AATA:Moving Us Where? The Politics, it has become evident that a millage vote is a difficult hurdle to scale.  We further documented in a second post, AATA: Moving Us Where? The Politics II that there is evidence (public statements by the AATA Board Chair, Jesse Bernstein) that the plan for funding has shifted to a proposed state-initiated vehicle registration fee that currently exists only as the Governor’s sketched-out proposal (it has apparently not even surfaced as a bill in committee).

Meanwhile, City Council is apparently poised to sign off on the 4-party agreement (also known as the Public Transportation Agreement) on January 9, 2012, while the county Board of Commissioners is said to have the Articles of Incorporation on its agenda for January 18, 2012.  With these two acts, the New Authority based on Act 196 will materialize in a clap of thunder.

But wait!  The assumption has been that nothing would really happen until a countywide millage vote occurred.  This was a considerable source of comfort to all, since this millage vote would serve as a public referendum on the plan itself.  No winning vote, game over, go back to status quo.  First, that assumption was not quite borne out in previous drafts of both the Public Transportation Agreement and the Articles of Incorporation (AOI).  But new drafts that we have been able to examine leave the requirement of a millage vote very much up in the air.  (Disclaimer: since the documents are still in draft form, they may yet be revised again.)  It appears that the New Authority (the tentative name for the Act 196 authority) will become the “successor” almost immediately, using the Ann Arbor millage to operate.

The AOI  has  language that firms up earlier statements that the New Authority will come into existence immediately after the AOI is approved by the county Board of Commissioners.  It states that the County Clerk is to file the AOI immediately, and the Authority becomes effective 30 days later.  An ambiguous clause refers to the “passage of a countywide funding mechanism”, but this could refer to legislative passage; no public vote is indicated.

The 4-party agreement, which Council will be considering,  previously contained the following contingency to designating the New Authority as the successor authority to AATA :

(Section 8.f.) Countywide voter approval before December 31, 2014, of a New TA Act 196 funding source adequate to fund ongoing operations of New TA.

In the new draft,  the City of Ann Arbor agrees to designate the New TA as the “successor” to AATA “when and if” “alternate funding sources are elected to fund the NEW TA which do not require voter approval, evidence of sufficient funding to support the continued and uninterrupted level of services provided by its predecessor-in-interest, AATA satisfactory to the City.

“Election” or “elected” is, like “passage” an interesting word that means different things in different contexts.  In this one it almost surely does not refer to a public referendum (millage issues are “passed” but not “elected”), but rather to a means of revenue that is chosen (elected) by the Authority itself.  (Which makes one reflect back to Michael Ford’s mysterious mention on WEMU of “philanthropic sources”.)

There is also a contingency on “closing” (the actual transfer of assets) that calls for “Countywide voter approval before December 31, 2014, of a New TA Act 196 funding source adequate to fund ongoing operations of New TA” (the old 8.f.).  The “closing” is the final transfer of assets from AATA.  But the succession and access to AATA millage from the City of Ann Arbor occurs much earlier.

In other words, we now have two steps in the transformation.

1. The New Authority incorporates and immediately assumes the role of Ann Arbor’s transportation provider, and its millage.  The only requirement is that a funding source be identified, that is funding of any kind is available to continue the service at an adequate level.

2. The final dissolution of AATA and transfer of its monetary and physical assets requires a countywide vote of some kind, but not necessarily a millage vote.  This is consistent with our earlier speculation that a vehicle registration fee will be the subject of the vote.

So what will happen is that we will have a “soft” transition where there will immediately be a New Authority, with all the rights of an authority, that will be operating Ann Arbor’s transportation system with Ann Arbor’s millage.  Later, when the new fees kick in (presumably after a county-wide vote), the dried-up husk of AATA will be discarded.

There will never be a countywide millage vote, and hence there will never be a referendum on whether we want to take these steps.

Unless the City Council takes a deep breath on Monday, and lets the discussion continue a while longer.

UPDATE:  A very preliminary council agenda does not have the 4-party agreement on it.  It may be that this is because the paperwork is not yet completed.  We’ll see what the public agenda says.

Explore posts in the same categories: civic finance, politics, Transportation

2 Comments on “The Case of the Vanishing Transit Millage”

  1. David Cahill Says:

    Vivienne, could you please post the new draft to which you refer, or a link to it? Plus, it would be great to have the date of the draft. Or have you provided this info elsewhere?

    While it is refreshing to not see anything on Council’s January 9 agenda at this point, nonetheless items are routinely added as late as Monday.

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