Archive for the ‘politics’ category

The Tumultuous Politics of Ypsilanti Township

October 12, 2013

Before we add Ypsilanti Township to AAATA, Ann Arbor officials need to understand who they are dealing with.

One quality of local politics in Ann Arbor (and perhaps most places) is that we often live serenely unaware of what is happening in adjacent communities.  This has not won us a lot of love.  Serving on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners for eight years was a tremendous learning experience, and one thing I learned is that Ann Arbor is often resented for its standoffish and better-than-you (as perceived) attitude.

Now our leaders have chosen to push us into a more regional perspective, notably by expanding our city transportation system (AATA, now AAATA) into neighboring communities.  It behooves us to understand them if we are to share services and tax base with them.

Washtenaw communities (census tracts) by median income. Dark green is highest, sand color is lowest.

Washtenaw communities (census tracts) by median income. Dark green is highest, sand color is lowest. (Click for bigger picture.)

Michigan government is structured along extremely local lines, with Michigan townships likely the most potent force.  These (usually) 36-square-mile entities are mostly “general law” townships, and a few are “charter” townships.  They have a somewhat different organization and tax structure.  Charter townships are somewhat more impervious to annexation by cities (though this process is never easy in Michigan) and can impose higher operating millages.  They typically have higher population densities than general law townships.  This is true of Ypsilanti Township, which is the second most populous municipality in Washtenaw County, after Ann Arbor.  It also shares with the City of Ypsilanti and portions of Ann Arbor itself the quality of having the lowest median incomes in the county.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority has now expanded to include the City of Ypsilanti and the AAATA Board recently voted to add Ypsilanti Township as well.  Before our City Council votes on this measure, it is important to know a little more of the politics and history of the township.  It is good to understand people you are doing business with.

Brenda Stumbo

Brenda Stumbo

Karen Lovejoy Roe and Brenda Stumbo burst upon the Ypsilanti Township scene in 1996, when as a team they defeated well-respected Wesley Prater (Supervisor) and Ethel Howard (Clerk).  They remained in office (Roe as Supervisor, Stumbo as Clerk) until 2004, when a slate headed by former State Representative Ruth Ann Jamnick unseated them.  Roe then ran against Wes Prater to knock him out of his seat on the Board of Commissioners (Prater was the Chair of the BOC but was defeated by Roe in 2006).   In 2008, the pair ran again, this time with Stumbo taking the office of Supervisor and Roe the Clerk’s position.  (Analysis of the race by Mary Morgan, then on the editorial staff of the Ann Arbor News, is instructive.)  They have remained in those positions ever since, and in their nearly 20 years of leadership have shaped much of the way the township does business.

Karen Lovejoy Roe

Karen Lovejoy Roe

The single largest impact they have had, at least as viewed from the outside, has been the dispute with Washtenaw County in an effort to reduce the cost of contract Sheriff’s deputies.  As for many municipalities, the cost of “public safety”, especially policing, had become the largest fraction of the County budget in the 1990s.  The Sheriff had been providing this service both with “road patrol” (paid for by General Fund monies) and direct contracts with townships.  As the result of a study done in 1999, the County proposed in 2000 to institute a system of charging townships for policing services based on a “PSU” or police services unit, approximately the fully loaded cost of a single deputy.  County grants would pay 34% of the cost.

Proposed charges for deputies in 2000 report

Proposed charges for deputies in 2000 report

But this was very bad news for Ypsilanti Township, with the policing needs of an urbanized area.  While cities and most villages in the County, plus at least two townships (Northfield and Pittsfield) had their own police forces, Ypsilanti Township needed essentially a full police force composed of Sheriff’s deputies.  In 2000, the majority of Sheriff’s deputies were employed in the township, 44 in all compared to 25 for the entire rest of the county.  The bill would be over $3 million annually.  After years of disputes, they filed a lawsuit against the County in 2006 demanding a lower payment schedule.  The lawsuit lingered in court and through various appeals until a settlement was finally reached in 2011. As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle,

The bulk of the recommended payment – $732,927 – will come from Ypsilanti Township, which had contracted for 44 sheriff deputies in 2006…County representatives previously indicated they were seeking around $2 million. The county is not seeking payment for its legal expenses related to the lawsuit, which are estimated to be just over $1 million.

The township, according to  the Ann Arbor Observer,  had legal fees of $1.1 million.  But the new 4-year contract means that the County is still subsidizing Ypsilanti Townships’ police service by $1 million/year.  Since many of the County’s municipalities – including Ann Arbor – pay for their own police forces and only make incidental use of the Sheriff’s deputies, they are doubly subsidizing Ypsilanti Township, as they are paying for services they don’t use directly.

Were Ypsilanti Township officials justified in spending over $2 million of taxpayers’ money in court trying to get a better deal?  Most likely they still feel that they were, as the township had lost a good deal of taxable value with the closing of auto plants.  The township form of government dictates that officials will try to obtain the best services for their residents with the lowest taxes.  But this means that other municipalities (County, cities, other townships) must be aware that they are dealing with some very value-oriented folks in making arrangements for sharing services and tax base.  And – they are fighters.

The township’s website is , where much information may be found.

UPDATE: In response to Larry Krieg’s query (see comment below), I am providing some historical documents.  A memo to the BOC on May 17, 2000 laid out the premise and approach for a new police charges methodology.  (This is the document from which the illustration is drawn.) In a 2006  memo containing details of contract offers, the county explains all the different pricing strategies and references the lawsuit.  As it states, all townships other than the plaintiffs in the lawsuit (Ypsilanti Township, Salem Township, and Augusta Township) signed a four-year contract using the new methodology before the deadline of December 31, 2005.  “Representatives from each of these Townships publicly stated that they would not sign the four-year proposed contract because the specific prices for 2008-2009 would not be approved by the County Board of Commissioners before April, 2006.”  Thus,

the County proposed a four-month “bridge” contract to the Plaintiff Townships to cover January through April, 2006 at a cost of $100 per hour per PSU, which was less than the County’s actual full cost of $111 per hour per PSU to place a PSU on patrol. The purpose of the “bridge” contract was to provide a contractual means to continue police services to the Plaintiff Townships until such time as the Board of Commissioners would approve the price figures for 2008-2009. Once those figures were approved, these Townships would then be able to approve or reject the four-year proposed contract.

As the memo goes on to explain, the BOC approved the bridge contract, but the plaintiffs refused that contract and instead sued.  The complaint named several members of the BOC individually as well as the County itself.  The subsequent history is given in this memo describing settlement of the lawsuit. Courts found for the County at every level, including at the Appeals Court.  The question of the contract has literally been adjudicated in great detail and the County was found to be justified in the contractual approach that they took.

SECOND UPDATE:  Continuing the documentation in answer to Larry Krieg’s query, here are the history and supporting documentation of the County’s jail expansion.   My very first writing assignment for the Ann Arbor Observer was a comprehensive coverage of the issues leading up to a February 2005 ballot issue. Here is a proof copy of The Jail Millage (please note that the images are copyrighted by the photographers). Mary Morgan provides an excellent history and summary of outcomes in her account on the Ann Arbor Chronicle. As she indicates, the ballot issue was defeated by the voters.  That millage proposal was very large and complex with many moving parts.  After its defeat, the County still had a jail overcrowding problem, and the BOC considered the issuance of a $30 Million bond to pay for a new jail. From the Chronicle:

A citizens group objected to the $30 million bond, saying it was too similar to the ballot initiative defeated earlier that year. The group – called the Save Our Sheriff (SOS) Committee – collected more than 17,000 signatures aimed at forcing a countywide referendum on the issue. The protest came in the context of disputes between the county administration and the sheriff at the time, Dan Minzey, over funding for operations as well as the cost of sheriff deputy patrols in the townships. In early 2006, commissioners dropped plans to issue that bond.

Indeed, as seen in the August 2005 bonding resolution, the slightly revised Administrator’s recommendations were to be financed by this bond and there were expectations that the savings from the new police services model would assist in that.

transfer of funds clauseAgain according to the Chronicle account,

But in November 2006, the county board was ready to move ahead again, approving a $21.6 million bond issuance for the expansion. This time, no organized efforts were made against the proposal, and the bonds were sold in early 2007. Just over a year later, in March 2008, the board authorized another $12.6 million bond for the new 14A-1 District Court.

The resolution passed in November 2006 was this time not referencing the Administrator’s Public Safety recommendations, but rather a Space Plan funding resolution that nevertheless also references the General Fund savings from the changes in police contract methodology.

This memo requesting additional construction funding which dates from 2010 details the amount of the bond proceeds and the actual costs of construction.  It requests more funding, which is from a Facilities Operation & Maintenance fund (used for capital projects).  The memo makes it clear that all construction was paid for either with bond proceeds (including interest on bond balances) or the facilities fund.

However, staffing was also needed for the new jail. This  memo requesting more Corrections staff which also dates from 2010 indicates a considerable expansion of the Corrections budget.  There is no reference to including this in the cost of PSUs or contract personnel.  Historically, the Corrections budget has been separate from the police function.  Counties in Michigan are obliged by law to maintain a jail but not to provide policing.  The two should not demonstrate a cross-over in budgetary charges, though they are both under the Sheriff’s budget.

It must be noted that one complication to this story was the role of Sheriff Dan Minzey, who served from 2000 to 2008.  He was often at odds with the BOC and the County Administrator on these issues under his charge.  Note that the anti-bond committee was called Save Our Sheriff.  He doubtless helped to cause a conflation in the public mind between the changes in funding deputies and the cost of the jail.  Minzey came from the ranks of the deputies and was apparently not very interested in the Corrections responsibilities under his aegis.  The present Sheriff, Jerry Clayton, was elected in 2008.  To my estimation, he has had a calming effect and has brought a thoughtful managerial style to the job.  As an example, here is his overview of public safety issues facing Washtenaw County.

The overlap in timing of the two issues (jail and policing), together with the somewhat adversarial posture of the then Sheriff, may have naturally led to some of the confusion.

  • February 2005: Failure of the jail millage
  • August 2005: First bond measure passed, with many references to Administrator’s revision of items discussed in jail millage proposal
  • December 2005: Deadline for signing new police contracts
  • January 2006: Ypsilanti Township and two others file suit against County
  • January 2006: BOC rescinds bond resolution

Nevertheless, in my opinion, the changes in the way the County charged for contract deputies was going to happen regardless of what was happening with the jail.  When it all began in 1999, the aim was to curtail the rapid increase in the Sheriff’s draw on the general fund.  The fact that jail overcrowding created a crisis that also needed funding was coincidental.  When the millage failed, like any governmental body, the County looked to see where funds could be obtained to address the problem.

Partisan Labels and Ann Arbor Politics

October 6, 2013

As the Council Party fades, what do party labels mean to local politics?

We are nearing a November election that will possibly result in a major shift in direction on the Ann Arbor City Council.  For a time, John Hieftje enjoyed a nearly complete hold on power to command votes from the Council.  This coming election may lose him that, though it will by no means render him without major influence over the City’s fate.  This August’s primary saw the defeat of one of his longtime supporters (Jack Eaton defeated Marcia Higgins) and the failure of his effort to unseat one of his critics (Stephen Kunselman held his own over Julie Grand).  The November election will pit his chosen candidate, Kirk Westphal, against an old opponent, Jane Lumm.  Westphal is a Democrat running against an Independent, thus he has garnered endorsements not only from the Mayor, but from a number of prominent Democrats. (His endorsement list reads like an honor roll of the Council Party, including kingmaker Leah Gunn and vocal CP spokesperson Joan Lowenstein; many of the same names appeared on Grand’s and Higgins’ endorsement lists.)  Next weekend the Ann Arbor Democratic Party is having an “Endorsement Saturday” that will include Westphal’s endorsement.  And Lumm’s candidacy, along with the success of many of her political supporters, has brought out some shrill voices attempting to use party labels against her.

One of the most confusing aspects of recent Ann Arbor political history has been that traditional party labels have become very nearly meaningless as the balance of power has shifted.  The labels and issues that relate to the national and even state parties have receded into the background as we debate specifics of how Ann Arbor is to be governed.

Ann Arbor is one of very few Michigan cities that elect members of City Council on the basis of political party.  Here we hold primaries in August to win the nomination as a Democrat or a Republican.  (I don’t know whether technically a new or third party could qualify to have a primary ballot.) (But see the SECOND UPDATE below.)  Otherwise, one runs as an Independent, who appears on the ballot only in November.

At one time, control of Ann Arbor City Council shifted back and forth between the two dominant political parties, but two things happened to alter that.  One was the shift of city elections from April (low turnout, mostly of long-term residents) to November, when many state and national elections are also held.  (See our history of this.)  Another was the election of George W. Bush to the Presidency of the United States, which began the ruination of the Republican brand among Ann Arbor’s relatively liberal populace.  Coincidentally, Bush’s election was paired with the election of John Hieftje as Mayor of Ann Arbor.  As we noted in an earlier post,

The last time a Republican won a city office in Ann Arbor was 2003, when Marcia Higgins was re-elected to the Fourth Ward council seat and Mike Reid bested Amy Seetoo in the Second Ward by 54%. The last time the Republican Party put up a candidate for Mayor was in 2004, when Jane Lumm garnered only 31% of the citywide vote against a triumphant John Hieftje. There were no Republican council candidates on the ballot.  Marcia Higgins announced that she was joining the Democratic Party and won re-election as a Democrat in 2005, joined by the former Republican mayoral candidate, Stephen Rapundalo, who won as a Democrat in the Second Ward.

The (old) Ann Arbor News' concept of the Council Party leaders after an email scandal. L to R: Leigh Greden, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke, Margie Teall

The (old) Ann Arbor News’ concept of the Council Party leaders after an email scandal. L to R: Leigh Greden, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke, Margie Teall

The move to a monolithic Democratic council coincided with the rise of a dominant political faction which we dubbed “the Council Party”.  It was to some extent John Hieftje’s Council, but former Councilmember Leigh Greden was also a dominating force. (Here is our analysis of the impact of Greden’s defeat.)

It is difficult to characterize the Council Party’s agenda succinctly but it has principally been pro-development, pro-growth, nominally liberal on social and environmental issues, and relatively nonresponsive to actual Ann Arbor residents and taxpayers, showing a willingness to pare services in order to redirect those resources to favored initiatives.  Under the management of former City Administrator Roger Fraser (hired in the first year of John Hieftje’s tenure as Mayor), city staff have been pared severely and departments combined. (Here is an excellent overview of those dark days from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)

The result of these resident-unfriendly policies has been a small revolution within Democratic ranks.  Beginning in 2006, there have been primary challenges, where Democratic challengers have run against incumbents.  There have also been strong contests for open seats. And notably, Jane Lumm, a former Republican council member and mayoral candidate, ran as an Independent in 2011 and trounced Stephen Rapundalo with the support of many Democrats. (In doing so, she bested another former Republican mayoral candidate.) This article from the Ann Arbor Chronicle has a table showing changes in the Council since 2007.

The dissidents have generally run against incumbents on the basis of fiscal issues (the redirection of tax dollars from services to such projects as the City Hall addition and the Fuller Road Station), the direction of development of the city (loss of neighborhood integrity, domination by the DDA and development interests in the downtown), and support for our park system.  An early review of the differences between this set of longer-term residents and taxpayers and the dominant majority on Council were highlighted in my article, Our Town vs. Big City.  Another reflection on these differences is in the post, The Council Party vs. The Ann Arbor Townies.  I don’t like the term “townies”, really, because it is often used to draw a distinction between town and gown (a different dichotomy, and many UM workers and faculty may be more sympathetic to the residents’ viewpoint).  Similarly, the Council Party no longer seems quite as descriptive as it was, diminished to the rump faction that it now is.  So let’s just call the factions Our Town and Big City for now.

So why are so many lifelong Democrats supporting Lumm for re-election?  Because she has our backs.  She has been a moderate Republican (not Tea Party or even particularly conservative) with liberal social views.  She supports the use of our city taxes for city services.  I am not representing her campaign so will not attempt to characterize her further. Westphal is the current chair of the Planning Commission and has supported most of the Big Development moves of recent years, such as the notorious 413 E. Huron project.  He generally follows what he refers to as the “progressive” party line, referring not to social convictions but rather to Big Picture and Bold Idea views.  In a Democratic candidate forum (Lumm was not, of course, invited) the Ann Arbor Chronicle reported his remarks as, “this is a really exciting time for Ann Arbor” The Chronicle goes on to say, “It seems that Ann Arbor is increasingly being mentioned in the same breath as some larger cities across the country – as a place that people who have other choices can locate their business and move to.” and further quotes him as saying “I think that we can set our sights even higher”.

In electoral contests between the two factions over the last seven years, success has visited both sides but Our Town has slowly increased its numbers to the point where it is a serious challenge to Big City.  This means it is time for name-calling and the use of partisan labels.  Recently a new political blog surfaced.  The “Middle of the Left” is anonymous and allows no comments, which considerably undercuts its credibility.  But it is a fair representation of the efforts to discredit Our Town on partisan grounds.  This continues the overall tenor of earlier attacks by Joan Lowenstein.  Now of course, Jane Lumm makes no claim to be a Democrat.  But the general theme is that anyone who supports her politically is also not a Real Democrat.  MOTL calls the Our Town faction “Teapublicans”  and even accuses them (us) of being “birthers” (a reference to the right-wing crazies who consider our President to be not really American).  He also manages to apply the DINO (Democrat in Name Only) label.

Partisan name-calling is, in my opinion, a refuge of the weak.  But there is no question that this is a partisan issue.  Don’t forget that the word “partisan” has a much broader meaning than the D/R split we often hear about.  According to Collins’ English Dictionary, the first meaning is “an adherent or devotee of a cause, party, etc”.  But that and other dictionaries draw attention to the use of the word in revolutionary or resistance movements, notably during World War II but in other conflicts.  There is no question that there are two “parties or causes” here, but the Democrat/Republican designations are not the point.  The point is the view of what the future of Ann Arbor should be, and what purpose city government should serve.  Is it to serve the citizens of Ann Arbor, or is it to transform Ann Arbor into a different community altogether?  The Big City folks clearly choose the latter.

The Democratic Party has had plenty of factions before.  There is no conflict like an intraparty conflict.  When I was the chair of a Democratic club in Southern California, we held a “unity dinner”.  I was a little bemused by the “unity” label but it was explained to me that plenty of folks were still angry with each other over the Vietnam War.  (This was 1982!)  The New Deal was constructed by Franklin Roosevelt using an ungainly collection of Southern segregationists and Northern union members.  And people still quote Will Rogers, “I am not a member of any organized political party.  I am a Democrat”.  The point is that insisting on some sort of Party purity is rather silly for Democrats.  We know who we are and there are some core beliefs that get us there.  Many times the details differ.

When does principle and objective overtake party identification?  As I have related, I’m a lifelong Democrat.  But there was a day I registered as a Republican.  It was to see that Winthrop Rockefeller was nominated to be Arkansas Governor, following the long reign of Orval Faubus.  (You may remember Faubus as the governor who resisted the integration of the Little Rock high school.)   Win Rockefeller was running against Justice Jim Johnson, an outspoken segregationist – but a Democrat.  I turned Republican to help get Rockefeller into the statehouse – and was rewarded by the image of the Governor of Arkansas linking hands with black Arkansans to sing “We shall overcome”.

No, our small issues in Ann Arbor do not rise to that heroic level.  But they are meaningful and many of us on both sides of the divide feel very strongly about them.  One reason the voices on the Big City side have gotten so shrill is that the Mayor has already lost the ability to push big money issues through.  Many of those require 8 votes on Council.  For most regular business, he needs 6 votes. (This would include his own, as he has the 11th vote.) Assuming that both Sabra Briere and Jane Lumm are re-elected (disclosure: I am supporting both of them), by my count there are 4 definite votes against most of the Mayor’s agenda, 3 sure votes he can count on at all times, and 3 council members who will vote very independently and can’t be counted on by either side.  So there are enough votes to block him on big money issues, but for all others he’ll need to win 2 of the three independents.  That gets serious.

UPDATE: Kirk Westphal’s endorsement page is linked above but I’ll repeat it here.  Jane Lumm’s endorsement page is here.  It includes many longtime Democrats.

SECOND UPDATE:  Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum responded to my inquiry about third-party primaries.  Here is his answer.

Unlike many other states, Michigan insists that all party qualification matters be handled statewide. There was an unsuccessful legal challenge to this about 15 years ago. Village elections used to be held with local parties like “Peoples” and “Citizens”, but those were wiped out in the 1960s when the state insisted that only parties with statewide ballot access, such as Democrats and Republicans, could appear on village ballots. Similar reasoning applies to whether a party nominates in primaries or at caucuses. The threshold for holding primaries is determined by the vote at the top of the ticket in the last statewide election. For example, following John Anderson’s presidential race in 1980, on the “Anderson Coalition” party ticket, there were Anderson Coalition primaries for all partisan offices in August 1982. Almost no one filed for those nominations, however. That being said, Ann Arbor had Human Rights Party primaries for city offices in the 1970s. There may be some wrinkle about the way parties are handled in the city charter. I’m guessing, though, that the state Bureau of Elections would be strenuously opposed to that today.

THIRD UPDATE: Jack Eaton’s comment reminded me that I failed to note a major influence and organizational force for the Our Town folks.  It is the Neighborhood Alliance, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary.  Jack has been the major maintainer of  the website for the Neighborhood Alliance. This site has many policy positions enunciated and resource listings.

FOURTH UPDATE: Mayor John Hieftje has announced that he will not run for re-election in 2014. He told the Ann Arbor News that the changing dynamics on Council were not a factor, but one can’t help but wonder.  After all, he has lost several of his council contingent despite his own personal involvement in their campaigns.  His influence will persist for years in the many board and committee appointments he has made. Not known: whether he is grooming a replacement.

FIFTH UPDATE: At the October 12, 2013 Ann Arbor Democratic Party meeting, numerous politicians sought an early endorsement.  Candidates who won Democratic primaries for Council were, of course, in essence already endorsed by the Democratic Party, since that is the point of the nomination process.  Apparently Kirk Westphal requested a special endorsement.  (Sabra Briere and Stephen Kunselman, who also have opponents in the General Election, did not request this extra endorsement.)  Rather than have the membership vote on an endorsement as they had for all other candidates present, the Executive Committee voted to endorse Westphal at an earlier meeting.  There was an attempt to rescind this action from the floor, but it failed.

SIXTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s coverage of the October 12 Dems meeting resulted in a rather comprehensive gallery of local Democrats.  Rather delicious, actually.

SEVENTH UPDATE: Westphal renewed the “Tea Party” label at a forum held on October 17.  As reported on MLive, he said Lumm was “Tea Party” because she has questioned spending city money on the Fuller Road Station. One commenter on that story made a very good comparison of this smear with the notorious “pinko” smear used by Richard Nixon in an early Congressional campaign.  It is true that in Ann Arbor and many other places now, “Tea Party” is every bit as inflammatory and damaging as “Communist” was in the 1950s.  Political smears are a tempting tactic, but the candidate should realize that it makes him appear venal.

EIGHTH UPDATE: In another gasp from the Big City folks, Charles “Chip” Smith announced a write-in campaign against Mike Anglin in the Fifth Ward. “He’s worried Anglin and others on council are more interested in building an Ann Arbor for now, and not an Ann Arbor for the future.”  Translation: not pro-development enough.  Smith works for a civil engineering firm, Wade Trim.

NINTH UPDATE: The Washtenaw Democratic Party has now weighed in to support the Democratic nominee in the Second Ward.   Lauren Coffman, campaign manager for Kirk Westphal, sent an email under the WDCP masthead calling for help with a GOTV (Get Out The Vote) effort in the next five days.  Jane Lumm’s name is not mentioned.  The title of the message is, “Let’s bring this victory home for the Democrat!”

TENTH UPDATE: Ypsilanti resident Mark Maynard posted a request on his Facebook to have his friends explain the appeal of Jane Lumm.  The results were quite nasty, with a lot of ageism and misrepresentation of political views.  What stands out is that a younger generation (the “Millennials”?) are beginning to show some political push behind the growth paradigm – evidently a wish to see a better future for themselves has made them buy the development meme.  Unfortunately they often do not look below the surface of the message.  Long-time Ann Arbor residents are going to have to embrace the question of what will happen for the generation that has just emerged into adulthood.

ELEVENTH UPDATE: I evidently stepped on some toes with the prior update.  See the comments on my old campaign blog which tell me that the generation causing the uproar is not the Millennials, but people in their late 40s (Gen X).  Apparently I fell into the popular preoccupation with Millennials (technically born after 1980).  But it still does seem that a new generation is starting to flex its muscles.  I probably overreacted to the comments on Maynard’s blog.  That is what partisan politics will do for you, especially on election day.

TWELFTH UPDATE: All incumbents won the election, except that Jack Eaton had already displaced Marcia Higgins in the August primary.  The Ann Arbor Chronicle and Ann Arbor News have details.  Of interest is the relatively strong showing for Chip Smith, who evidently received nearly a third of the 5th Ward votes in his write-in campaign.  As I have noted, that is indicative of some political winds that are blowing, perhaps generational.  The Our Town candidates will now have to demonstrate how their vision of the city’s future and approach to governance should prevail over the long term.

 THIRTEENTH UPDATE: The Middle of the Left blog has now been identified as the work of Diane Giannola. Recent posts have been thoughtful explorations of some general topics such as the recently defeated Michigan Proposal 15-1.

Topsy-Turvy Transit: Where Do We Go From Here? III

January 1, 2013

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?

Reprinted with permission by S. Harris.  Copyright by

Reprinted with permission by S. Harris. Copyright by

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.

How SB 910 would have allowed a county vehicle fee (from illustration by Richard Murphy)

How SB 910 would have allowed a county vehicle fee (from illustration by Richard Murphy)

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.

From the September 2012 final 5 year plan

From the September 2012 final 5 year plan

Proposed BRT routes into Detroit. Graphic by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, used with permission.  Pointer is Detroit Metro Airport.

Proposed BRT routes into Detroit. Graphic by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, used with permission. Pointer is Detroit Metro Airport.

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?


Topsy-Turvy Transit: Where Do We Go From Here? II

January 1, 2013

In our previous post, we listed five assumptions that AATA was operating under in its quest for a countywide transit authority.

  1. The elected officials of all the units of government in Washtenaw County would assent to being included in a new scheme that included a likely new tax and a governance model that left Ann Arbor mostly in charge.
  2. Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti, and Washtenaw County would all sign off on a couple of fairly substantial legal documents.
  3. The Regional Transit Authority for SE Michigan either would not materialize or would not affect them significantly.
  4. The voters across the county would vote in a new property tax, including in both tax-adverse rural townships and the voters of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, who were expected to add this millage to one already existing.
  5. Changes in Federal transportation funding would not affect them negatively.

From AATA’s perspective, assumption #1 seemed pretty reasonable to begin with.  From the beginning, staff spent many hours meeting with local officials and holding local public meetings.  They were  assisted by the Executive Director of the Washtenaw Area Transit Study (WATS), Terri Blackmore.  (Blackmore is more or less the godmother of the countywide transit plan and knew many of these officials through her professional activity.)  They received generally a good reception.  A number of local officials allowed the use of their faces in promotional materials and ultimately signed on to serve on the “u196 board”.  The u196 board, who were recruited via the district governance scheme, were all either local officials or very solid citizens who were accustomed to accepting civic responsibility.  Meetings began in November 2011 and the u196 appointees sat solemnly through a number of excellent staff overviews of various topics concerning transit.

u196 BOD
(Note that the list circulated at the second meeting does not include any representatives from Ann Arbor.  According to the governance scheme, the u196 board was to have 15 members, 7 of whom would be the current AATA board, representing Ann Arbor.  However, it was decided by leadership that the entire AATA board could not sit on the u196 board, since that would make meetings essentially a meeting of the AATA board and thus come under all the legal requirements of the Open Meetings Act.  Therefore, three AATA board members (the actual individuals who served changed) sat on the u196 board.)

But the acquiescence of u196 board members to discussion was not a promise that the political environment at home in the township would be favorable to an agreement on new taxes.  As we detailed in this post about county politics, many townships have a long tradition of very low property tax millages, and a 1-mill tax would have been doubling tax rates for some townships, a very hard sell.  And AATA leadership ignored the results of their own survey data (results from March 2012).

Results by region: Would you vote for a 1 mill transit tax?

Results by region: Would you vote for a 1 mill transit tax?

Note that while 68% of respondents in the City of Ann Arbor said they would be likely to vote for a transit tax of 1 mill, and 56% of the urban core communities in Ypsilanti and Pittsfield were positive (combining “definitely” and “probably”), only 48% of those in the City of Saline and eastern townships, and 42% in Chelsea and western townships were positive.  Of those, the greatest proportion were only “probably”.  The overall percentages of respondents in 2011 who said they would be “definitely” vote for a tax was 18%, and 36% said “probably”, for a total of 54% positive responses.  But that overall positive number did not take willingness to participate on a regional basis into account. Further, was this really a very strong positive result, even overall?  Survey respondents are known to tailor responses to what they think the questioner wants to hear.  Who knows what that 36% of  “probable” voters would have done in the privacy of the ballot box?

Somewhat disastrously, AATA appeared to take the position that any negative implications were to be ignored or explained, and positive ones the only to be considered.  When six rural townships withdrew very early even from the planning exercises, AATA leaders like Jesse Bernstein began talking of population numbers and taxable value, in effect arguing that those townships didn’t matter.  But these withdrawals undercut the premise of a countywide authority and set a precedent for non-participation.

One move that AATA did make in the face of these negative indications was to reduce the target millage in an attempt to make a vote for a new tax more palatable.  As mentioned in the last post, the Financial Task Force was able to reduce the proposed millage amount to 0.5 mills by excluding a number of projects from the cost of the plan (though AATA kept them in the plan and continued to spend money on them).  But there was again a political miscalculation here.  It was not a matter of the amount of the millage.  It was the question of any new tax at all for the benefit being offered.

Remaining (green) and opted-out (red screen) communities in Washtenaw County as of October 30, 2012.  Dexter Village had not voted.

Remaining (green) and opted-out (red screen) communities in Washtenaw County as of October 30, 2012. Dexter Village had not voted.

Ultimately, AATA simply failed to make the sale.  As we attempted to explain in an earlier post, for most sections of the county, the plan didn’t pencil out.  Once AATA sent out letters to municipalities offering a 30-day window from October 3 for opting out (the date was later extended to December 10), there was a rush to the exits.  By October 30, all but four governmental units had formally opted out.

Faced with the likelihood that the new authority was likely to consist of Ann Arbor subsidizing transit for a couple of other nearby communities, the Ann Arbor City Council voted on November 8 to opt out of the Washtenaw Ride and also to cancel the city’s participation in the 4-party agreement.

With Ann Arbor out, remaining communities followed suit.  Dexter Village finally opted out, and Ypsilanti Township and the City of Saline reversed their earlier “opt-ins”.  (See our post,  Washtenaw County Transit – More Outs than Ins for a blow-by-blow account.)

Opt-outs as of December 5. Only Ypsilanti City remains.

Opt-outs as of December 5. Only Ypsilanti City remains.

By the deadline of December 10, only the City of Ypsilanti remained in the Washtenaw Ride.  As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the November 18 AATA Board meeting sought to put the best face on what was, in fact, a devastating rejection of their efforts to put together a countywide transit organization.

Next: It’s all about the money.

Topsy-Turvy Transit: Where Do We Go From Here?

December 27, 2012

This has been a tough year for AATA.  What was supposed to be a walk in the park has turned into something more like a ride on Space Mountain.  And The Ride hasn’t finished with the possible surprises and upsets.

As we documented early on, the AATA board settled on a plan to launch a countywide transit authority at a retreat in June 2011, and released its first version of the Transit Master Plan in August 2011.  The process laid out was complex. It required participation of all units of government in Washtenaw County to appoint a 15-member board that would serve as an “unincorporated 196 board” (u196), execution of a very complicated legal document that would result in the city of Ann Arbor dedicating its charter transit millage to the new authority, and approval by the voters countywide of a new transit millage.

Roadmap presented to Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

Roadmap presented to Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

In September the AATA board approved a deficit budget for the next year (FY2012 started in October 2011).  As the Ann Arbor Chronicle reported, Planning and Development committee chair Rich Robben

“led off deliberations by saying it’s not a sustainable budget. But he said it would catapult the AATA towards a transition to countywide service.”

The “catapult” consisted of advance implementation of a number of new services that were presented as part of the countywide plan.  The choice of term was perhaps unfortunate, since it did indeed “catapult” AATA into its first acceleration to the top of the mountain.

The first jolt was felt in October 2011, with Governor Snyder’s announcement of his new transportation initiative, which included a Regional Transit Authority for SE Michigan.  It would include Washtenaw County.  We reported on this in detail in a post that described the reaction of Albert Berriz, the chair of the Financial Task Force.   The FTF had been appointed by the AATA to come up with a financial plan for financing the TMP.  It had its first meeting on October 28.  Snyder had given his talk on October 26.  Berriz was clearly stunned by the implications of the RTA (especially its control of state and Federal funds) and rather summarily canceled most business of the FTF, postponing the next meeting for a couple of months.

But AATA staff and board seemed sanguine and pressed ahead with their plan despite this large dose of uncertainty delivered by the Governor. They came up with a reassuring interpretation of the effects of the RTA on Washtenaw County’s transit plans as being minimal. Apparently these were based on conversations (the text of the legislation was not yet public). Many details are now clearly understood to be mistaken.  And they pressed on with their original plan.

From a presentation to the Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

From a presentation to the Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

The FTF appointed a subcommittee of very knowledgeable people who did a very high-level job of analyzing finances needed for the TMP.  By considerable fudging (they simply omitted many facets of the plan from the financial estimates) and raising fares, they were able to recommend a county-wide millage of only 0.5 mills (this was later recalculated to 0.584). But just as they were poised to present this to the full FTF, Governor Snyder’s package of bills were made public and the roll-out was again postponed.   Finally, the FTF met on February 29 and released their recommendations.  A complete set of these reports and recommendations is available on our Transportation Page.   The chair, Albert Berriz, wrote a letter to the committee that was telling.

…we don’t know what the Governor’s plan will look like in its final form, and without that information it’s difficult to say that pursuing the track of a countywide millage is the right thing to do at this time.  Therefore, in my opinion, it’s premature to pursue any millage option at this time…as there are too many parts of the current economic model that we have been asked to review that may and likely will change once the final legislation comes into play.

Meanwhile, in the background, serious discussion was going on in Washington D.C. about the fate of Federal transportation funding.  The then-current transportation bill was on life support after many short-term renewals.  Finally, on July 6, 2012, MAP-21, the new transportation bill, was signed into law.  Regulations and funding schedules have been generated on an ongoing basis.  (For excellent coverage, see Transportation Issues Daily’s MAP-21 Learning Center.)  During much of 2012, AATA did not know how Federal funding (a very important component of their overall financial plan) was going to settle out.

So, let’s summarize.  The AATA was proceeding on a number of assumptions.

  1. The elected officials of all the units of government in Washtenaw County would assent to being included in a new scheme that included a likely new tax and a governance model that left Ann Arbor mostly in charge.
  2. Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti, and Washtenaw County would all sign off on a couple of fairly substantial legal documents.
  3. The RTA either would not materialize or would not affect them significantly.
  4. The voters across the county would vote in a new property tax, including in both tax-adverse rural townships and the voters of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, who were expected to add this millage to one already existing.
  5. Changes in Federal transportation funding would not affect them negatively.

To all of these challenges, the response was to press ahead.  After all, what could go wrong?

In order to pursue the county-wide vision, the AATA invested big.  Over a three-year period, they spent $463,499.66 of Ann Arbor millage money.  The rest of the $1,418,890.15 cost for consultants, survey research, promotional materials and “outreach” was borne by Federal and state funds. See spreadsheet from AATA here.

The effort to get the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to sign off on both the four-party agreement and the Articles of Incorporation was longer and much more tedious than hoped.  But finally, on September 5, the BOC approved the AOI (account by the Ann Arbor Chronicle).  The AATA immediately (September 7) approved their 5-year plan and launched the countywide plan.  This would presumably lead to starting a 30-day clock for local units to opt out, after which the 196 board could be seated.

File directory of toolkit presented to AATA board on a flash drive

File directory of toolkit presented to AATA board on a flash drive

A very thorough campaign was conducted through the u196 members and their associated District Advisory Committees (staffed by u196 members and AATA staff) to convince communities to support the countywide effort.  It included postcards to be sent to elected officials and drafts of emails, letters to the editor, Facebook posts, and letters to officials.

The objective was to build a public pressure to get local governments to sign onto the countywide plan.

Postcards provided in a promotional packet handed to AATA board members and u196 members

Postcards provided in a promotional packet handed to AATA board members and u196 members

Next: So how did that work out?

Note: Posts on this subject and much reference material is on our Transportation Page.

The SE Michigan Regional Transit Authority in Progress

December 3, 2012

On November 27, 2012, the Michigan Senate passed a bundle of bills aimed at setting up a Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority.  We previously reviewed this initiative.  The most recent discussion was Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance.  The bill package languished through the summer, as was somewhat anticipated. As early as last January,  transportation consultants told the AATA Board that these bills were not likely to be taken up before the lame-duck session.  (See account by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)

Before we get into any discussion about the political and functional implications of the passage of this package, let’s summarize the bills.  Note that serious study would be aided by consulting this authoritative overview of the major bills (SB 909, 911, 912, 967) and the analysis of SB 445 by the Senate Fiscal Agency.

Senate Bill House equivalent Link to text Summary
909 5309 SB 909 Creates a Regional Transit Authority with 4 counties, described by population.
911 5311 SB 911 Provides for Vehicle License Fee ($1.20/$1000)
912 5310 SB 912 Apparently overrides local zoning for transit purposes.  Little detail.
445 not known SB 445 Direct Comprehensive Transportation Funds to RTA; RTA would distribute. (Incl Federal funds)
967 not known SB 967 Operate dedicated public transit lanes on highways

Conspicuously missing from the bill package passed by the Senate was a bill introduced by Senator Rebekah Warren.  Senate Bill 910 and its House counterpart HB 5312 would have allowed counties to levy a vehicle license fee of $1.80 per $1000 of the vehicle’s list price. So, for example, the owner of a vehicle valued at $20,000 would pay an additional $36 a year. Oddly, this money would be paid to the county treasurer, not to a transit authority or any transportation agency.  The fee would be in addition to existing vehicle license fees and in addition to the vehicle license fee assessed on behalf of the RTA.  (That fee would be $1.20 per $1000 valuation, so our hypothetical vehicle owner would pay $24 for the RTA plus the county fee, a total of $60 in new vehicle license fees.)  There would have to be a majority vote on a countywide ballot before the fee could be enacted.

December 5, 2012:  The House Transportation Committee reported the entire package out to the House floor without amendment.

Preliminary reports indicate that the House adjourned without final action on the RTA (December 5).

Here is the story in the Detroit News in which the measure failed to gain enough votes and was withdrawn without a final vote.  Presumably it will be reintroduced. interviews Ann Arbor officials on the status of the RTA package and its likely effects on Ann Arbor.

December 6, 2012: The House of Representatives voted in two of the five-bill RTA package.  These can now go to the Governor for signing.

The two bills, SB 909 and SB 445, passed with bare majorities. There are 110 members, so 56 votes are required. The vote for SB 909 was 57 in favor, 50 opposed, and 3 not voting;  56 – 52 – 2 for SB 445.)  The other three bills appeared to have between 45-50 votes on the board before leadership cleared the board and suspended voting on them.   The two bills were also declared by voice vote to have immediate effect, meaning they will be law after the Governor signs them, rather than in the next legislative session.

Here are comments sent out today (Dec. 6) by Representative Rick Olson, who is retiring from the House at the end of the term.  (Emphasis added.)

If we had amended the Senate bills, they would need to go back to the Senate for concurrence with the amendments, and there are not enough Republican votes in the Senate to do so. So rather than risk losing the RTA opportunity once again, the committee approved the Senate bills as they had passed the Senate. As I am writing this, the main RTA bill (Senate Bill 909) has passed the House.  We are continuing to work on changes to some of the accompanying bills. 

As the bills stand, the bills only enable an RTA to be formed, they don’t form one. The region will need to put a plan together and then pass by a vote of the people of the region the funding mechanism. If the region cannot get its act together, there will not be a regional transit plan. If it can, then the region will be able to join the rest of the major cities in the US in providing convenient transportation to its non-motorized residents.

The Ann Arbor City Council has scheduled a special meeting to discuss the impact of the RTA billsHere is the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s description.

December 6, 2012: SB 911 has now been passed with 57 votes.  SB 912 was delayed again. According to MIRS, the House adjourned without action on SB 912 and SB 967. The chair of the Transportation Committee, Rep. Paul Opsommer of DeWitt, seemed to indicate that they will be brought back again.

December 7, 2012: The House is evidently not in session today, as no webcasts are scheduled.  Staff are keeping up with the action on bills.  See for example the page on SB 912, where actions are recorded in the box at the end.

December 10, 2012: The House is not in session until tomorrow.

Murph (aka Richard Murphy) has posted an analysis of why Ann Arborites should not be concerned about the RTA on his blog Common Monkeyflower.  Note that Murph is employed by the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

The Ann Arbor City Council’s special session today at 4 p.m. has been moved to the City Council chambers from the Jury Room after a question raised about public access and also use of electronic devices (prohibited in the Justice Center).  CTN coverage still TBD.   This session is to consider a resolution asking Governor Snyder to veto the RTA package, or at least SB 909 which causes Washtenaw to be included in the RTA.

Conan Smith’s letter to the Ann Arbor City Council: Hours before the Council meets to consider a resolution calling for the Governor’s veto, Conan Smith, the mover behind Washtenaw County’s inclusion, has sent a letter imploring the Council to step back from the brink.  It had an attached document that explained aspects of the RTA at length.  Conan Smith letter to Ann Arbor City Council

The scope of Smith’s ambition with this measure can be guessed from this sentence:

Ending the balkanization of our transit systems is a fundamental reform if we are to create a system that serves the broadest set of the population and competes successfully against places like Boston, Chicago and San Francisco for federal investments.

Ann Arbor City Council, December 10, 2012 voted to pass the resolution, slightly amended. Discussion was somewhat subdued. According to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the vote was unanimous. Ann Arbor Chronicle account of the special meeting

The story in quotes some officials who have a mixed view of the RTA.

December 11, 2012:

The Ann Arbor City Council’s final resolution regarding the RTA package is now available. DC-1 Protest SB 909 Certified Copy    The resolution removes the issue from the frenetic press of last-minute legislation and pushes it into next term.  It no longer calls on the Governor to veto the existing package.

council resolved

December 12, 2012: The Ann Arbor Chronicle has now published an article detailing the discussion at the December 10 City Council meeting.  According to the article, as of noon on December 12, Governor Snyder had not signed any of the RTA bills.

December 13, 2012: The final two bills, SB 0967 and SB 0912, have still not passed the House.  (By clicking on the links to the bills, it is possible to see their status.  According to the status update, neither bill has yet been taken up again since December 6.)

Today the Detroit News published an article that quotes Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood as saying that these two bills must pass in order for Detroit and Michigan to receive the $25 million hoped for the M-1 streetcar project on Woodward Avenue. “The legislation ‘is really one of the last pieces that has to be put in place in order for us to give the green light,’ LaHood said.”

What did we tell you?  (Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance)  It is really all about that M-1 project.

December 14, 2012: SB 912 and SB 967 passed the House “early Friday morning”. According to MIRS, the vote was 57-48 and 56-49, respectively.
The entire package has thus been passed and is expected to be signed by the Governor, since it was his package of bills at the outset.  This completes the program for a Regional Transit Authority that he laid out in his transportation talk on October 26, 2011.  (See our summary with links here.)
There are many questions to be answered, especially for us in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County who depend primarily on the AATA for our transit service.  See our early discussion of this.  Future posts will examine the effects on the AATA and its plans for a modestly expanded regional coverage in Washtenaw County.  Meanwhile, we’ll wait to see whether the plea from Ann Arbor’s City Council to remove Washtenaw from the RTA is effective (my best prediction is that it will be fruitless) and who is appointed to the RTA board, and when.
Some of the bills were passed with immediate impact.  However, Megan Owens of Transportation Riders United predicts that the RTA will take shape 90 days after signing, in March 2013. It will have fiscal authority as of October 2013 (the start of the Federal fiscal year).

Conan Smith to appoint Washtenaw County Board Members

Smith has informed the Board of Commissioners that he intends to move ahead with appointments to the Regional Transit Authority Board as soon as the RTA bills are signed.   Here is the text of his message:

Members of the Board(s) . . . next week the governor will sign SB 909 creating the Regional Transit Authority, which includes Washtenaw County.  The legislation authorizes the chair of our commission (sic) to make two appointments to the board.  I’ve discussed options with Curt and the incoming leadership team and with their support will be making these appointment before the end of the year.  The general terms are three years, but one of the initial appointment is for a single year, so that one will expire within the purview of the incoming board who can review and reappoint or replace my selection.

I’ve invited a small group of community leaders to serve as an advisory board in this process:
  • Rolland (Sizemore, Jr.) as the immediate past chair and Yousef (Rabhi) as the (presumed) incoming chair;
  • Michael Ford, CEO at AATA, to ensure our transit agency’s perspective is represented;
  • Bill Milliken, Jr., to represent the business community; Bill served as the chair of the Washtenaw Development Council for many years and continues on the SPARK board; and
  • Carolyn Grawi, Director of Advocacy and Education at the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, to represent the interests of transit users.

We will post notice today that applications will be accepted through the end of next week.  The advisory committee and I will review those applications and create a short list.  From that list I will select two preferred candidates and one or two alternates.  The advisory committee will interview those individuals on December 27 at a public meeting at LLRC, present their responses to me and I will make the final appointments at that point.

It is rare that statute specifically empowers the chair to make an appointment (typically it is the “commission [sic]”), so I recognize that appointing without board approval steps outside of our standard operating procedures — hence the engagement of the advisory board and a public interview process.   I will happily ensure that you all have as much information as you desire in this process as it moves forward.
I’ll be sending a press release out this afternoon and would greatly appreciate your support in distributing it and alerting community members to this opportunity to represent the county.

NB: The body that Smith chairs is the Board of Commissioners. It is often informally called the County Commission, but no such body exists in Michigan law. The RTA legislation correctly identifies the Chair of the BOC as the responsible party in this instance.

Governor Snyder signs RTA package of bills

Governor Snyder signed the RTA package and several other bills on December 19, 2012.  Here is a picture.

Note: Subjects in this category are listed on the Transportation Page.

Those State Transportation Bills and the Regional Transit Authority

April 2, 2012

The pending state action on a Regional Transit Authority will hold up resolution of a Washtenaw County transit system. Or it should.

As we have been documenting in a seemingly endless stream of posts, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (its board and staff) have been engaged in a prodigious effort over the last three years to put a new regional transit system into operation. (A catalog of these posts and links to other resources can be found on our Transportation Page.)  The idea was that a new “countywide” authority would be instituted that would then implement a Transit Master Plan (TMP) developed by the AATA with their London-based consultants. (See their website, Moving You Forward to see the full TMP.)   But just as their efforts seemed near fruition, the new governor introduced what is sometimes referred to as a “game changer”.    On October 26, 2011, Governor Snyder presented a broad, ambitious plan to remake the face of transportation – especially as its infrastructure is supported by state law and funding – in Michigan.  (Our post and a report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle are contemporary summaries of this proposal.)

The effect of Snyder’s plan was to throw off the schedule for the Financial Task Force, a blue-ribbon committee of local notables who were tasked with the job of coming up with a financial “white paper” to back up the regional (countywide) transit plan. (We’ll call this the  TMP, to distinguish it from Snyder’s proposed Regional Transit Authority or RTA).  The chair of the task force, McKinley Properties’ Albert Berriz, summarily changed the course of the FTF’s work so that a final report was delayed to January 27, 2012, then to February 29.  (The actual text of the legislation was not released until January 2012; see the report by the Chronicle.)  Here is a sheet showing a list of all bills in the transportation package and with links to the Michigan Legislature page that shows their progress through committee to passage.  Note that very useful legislative analyses and summaries are found on some of the linked pages.

Partly as a result of these delays, the calendar for completion of the TMP process has been considerably altered.  See our post, AATA: Moving Us Along for a discussion of steps in the process (the timeline has slid considerably since then).  While there were efforts earlier to have the 4-party agreement and the Articles of Incorporation all adopted by January (we complained about that in an earlier post), the RTA confusion (along with delays in approval both by Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti of the 4-party agreement) has introduced considerable uncertainty into the FTF’s conclusions.  (Note: a complete listing of the FTF’s reports is on the Transportation Page.)

Dennis Schornack at the Finance Task Force meeting, February 29, 2012

There was discussion of the state legislation for the RTA at the February 29 meeting, with both Dennis Schornack (the Governor’s assistant and point man on this issue) and Conan Smith (one of whose hats is apparently to be bargaining on behalf of Washtenaw County on this matter) weighing in.  Berriz interjected a number of worried statements and questions about the effect of the RTA legislation on Federal funds that have been coming to AATA.  (One aspect of the proposed RTA is that it would become the recipient and manager of Federal operating funds for transit in the region.)

The reasons for the anxiety are better illustrated with a diagrammatic summary of changes in relationships among transit agencies that was released March 13 via  As the article says, the diagram was prepared by Richard Murphy (known around here as “Murph”), who now works for Conan Smith at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

Note that AATA currently receives funds directly from the Federal Transit Administration (the only agency in the region to do so).  AATA has been very effective at applying for Federal operating and capital funds.   Berriz fretted that that “foundation” of significant funding could be endangered.

Under the new legislation, AATA would become merely one of several regional transit agencies.  Federal funding would go directly to the RTA, to be forwarded to each regional transit agency.  This is the feature of the new legislation package that especially had the FTF worried.  Another feature that has left some of the process up in the air is the prospect of a new funding stream via a vehicle registration tax.

So how did we get here?  Some of the history is known, some has evidently come through private conversations among people with an interest in metro Detroit and in the future of transit in the region.  (Among other things, inadequate transit is seen as an impediment to economic activity.)  But clearly Conan Smith and his wife (State Senator) Rebekah Warren have been intensively involved.  Last year (June 2011) Warren introduced bills that would establish an RTA in the Detroit metro region.  (The story in makes it sound as though the intent is to support passenger rail funding;  it includes enthusiastic quotes to that effect from Ann Arbor’s Mayor John Hieftje.)  Smith, in his guise as the executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance,  has a clear interest in enhancing economic vitality of the Detroit metro region.  Warren’s bills would have created a transit authority that included only Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.  They were never taken up for action, or at least did not make it out of committee.

In September 2011, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners (of which Smith is the chair) passed a resolution as follows (according to the Ann Arbor Chronicle):

Be It Therefore Resolved that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners supports the creation of a new Regional Transportation Authority to enhance interconnectivity among the communities of the southeast Michigan region and urges the participants in the 2011 Southeast Michigan Regional Summit to aggressively pursue work that meets the above outlined goals.

Conan Smith at the Financial Task Force meeting, February 29, 2012

Smith then subsequently became one of a group that also included the Mayor of Detroit and 3 elected county executives who pledged to promote a regional transit authority (MLive described the group).  In a little over one month later, Governor Snyder released his transportation plan.  And now, Washtenaw County is included in the Regional Transit Authority that was originally confined to metro Detroit.

Smith is now heavily involved in negotiation about the makeup of the bills.  Appearing before the state Senate’s transportation committee, he even indicated that one of Washtenaw County’s representatives to the RTA could be surrendered, if that would help (account from the Chronicle). His role at the Financial Task Force was to explain and predict the course of the bills.  (Jesse Bernstein, chair of the AATA board, said that he would be meeting with Smith separately to insert material into the legislation that would specifically protect AATA by making it the designated agency for the subregion (Washtenaw County) (to which Schornack responded that it already was in the legislation).

The recommendation from the FTF was, finally, very tentative.  It was clear from their statement that the pending RTA legislation left the TMP very much up in the air.

The analysis conducted by the sub-group was built on several assumptions about the level, type and timing of funding available from the State of Michigan. The recently-proposed legislation affecting transit funding and organization in SE Michigan, introduced since the last meeting of the sub-group, suggests that those assumptions may not be complete and should therefore be revisited.

The letter from Berriz to his committee makes it even more explicit that the committee is simply unable to make a final (funding) recommendation with the state legislation pending.

…we don’t know what the Governor’s plan will look like in its final form, and without that information it’s difficult to say that pursuing the track of a countywide millage is the right thing to do at this time. Therefore, in my opinion, it’s premature to pursue any millage option at this time until we have a clearer picture of what the efforts now underway at the state level will look like in their final form. Moving forward with a millage at this time is not prudent as there are too many parts of the current economic model that we have been asked to review that may and likely will change once the final legislation comes into play…I respectfully request that we table our work at this time, and I would ask that reconvene at some later point once we have a clearer picture of what the statewide efforts look like in their final form.

What the FTF’s recommendation actually consists of is a number of changes to services to be included, changes in fares, and a figure stating the likely amount of additional funding that must be found – whether by a millage or other type of funding.  But as Berriz’ letter states clearly, all of that is tentative.

Under questioning, Smith and Schornack expressed a belief that legislation might be through both houses by May, though they complained that a number of representatives had small local issues that they were concerned with.  At the same time, Schornack expressed a wish for even stronger legislation than is currently being proposed.  (He also confirmed that Washtenaw County has no opportunity to opt out of this plan.) Throughout the meeting, both Schornack and Smith clearly demonstrated that the real issue is the lack of coordination between the two metro Detroit bus systems (SMART and DDOT).  Alarmingly, many of the subsidiary measures appear to be aimed at enforcing some discipline upon those two agencies.  For example, there is punitive withholding of  funds for lack of coordination.

But what is not clear is how some of those measures might rebound on AATA and its ability to act in an autonomous manner to plan and provide services within Washtenaw County.  An issues analysis prepared by AATA staff in February states this conundrum clearly:

The uncertainty of the effect of the RTA Act on Washtenaw County is likely to undermine this effort, particularly any referendum for local funding. AATA will no longer be able to guarantee that it will implement the plan if the local funding is approved…The RTA is required to coordinate the operating and capital plans of the transit agencies…It could be as little as collecting and organizing the plans of the transit agencies and working eliminate overlap or duplication. It could also be as much as determining the local service to be operated throughout the region, including Washtenaw County. For example, will AATA have to get RTA approval for local service changes?

The analysis notes that most funding for AATA comes from Ann Arbor, and then makes this point about another section of the RTA legislation:

The interpretation that RTA will have control over local service is increased by Section 8(4) on Coordination Directives. The section explicitly gives the RTA the power to issue directives to AATA affecting “routes, schedules, and fares,” but not limited to these areas. This would clearly permit the RTA to order AATA to add, revise, or delete service or change fares. There is no limitation on these coordination directives and the bill’s language specifies that the coordination directives pre-empt city, village, or township provisions or procedures. There is no mention of the relationship with funding. Theoretically, this provision would enable the RTA Board to order AATA to shift service from Ann Arbor, even if the local funding comes from Ann Arbor.  (emphasis added)

In the midst of all this flux, no one has thought to question what the effect of forming an entirely new regional agency (the Act 196 New Transit Authority that is the subject of the 4-party agreement and the draft Articles of Incorporation) might be as the metro Detroit RTA is being organized.  There would be two transit authorities/agencies in Washtenaw County, AATA and the NTA.  But the NTA is not (by the terms of the 4-party agreement) to become a “successor agency” with regard to Ann Arbor’s assets until there is a popular vote, presumably for a millage but possibly for a local vehicle registration fee.  That is unlikely to happen before 2014.  (There is not time this year to coordinate a millage vote, and no clear direction to have one.)  So what would be the status of the two parallel authorities?  To which would the RTA turn in its effort to coordinate regional transit over the entire area?  And which would receive Federal and state funding via the RTA?

Surely, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners should examine the Articles of Incorporation closely with these questions in mind.  I would think that the BOC might even prudently table the matter until the RTA legislation and all its facets are fully known.  I would like to think that the leadership of the  BOC would take all actions possible to protect our local bus service from being controlled through a multi-county agency that is really focused on metro Detroit.  But then, that would be Conan Smith (who is the chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners).

ADDENDUM: A coalition of local lawmakers was formed to promote the regional transit concept. R-PATH is represented in Washtenaw County by county commissioners Yousef Rabhi and Barbara Bergman.  Most of the posts on R-PATH’s website so far seem to emphasize the Bus Rapid Transit routes across metro Detroit rather than the transit agency revisions.

UPDATE: According to Michael Ford’s report to the AATA board in the April packet, the RTA bills have passed the Senate committee.  There is no information about amendments on the state website.

SECOND UPDATE: An editorial in the Detroit Free Press implies that the Senate is near action on the key RTA bills.

THIRD UPDATE:  At a so-called Ann Arbor District Advisory Committee meeting on May 14, AATA staff and chair Jesse Bernstein stated that they are working directly with the Governor’s office to set Washtenaw County aside from the RTA so that it is its own RTA.  The rewritten legislation has not yet been introduced into committee.  The comment was made that the draft legislation may pass the Senate first and then have to be reworked in the House.

Timing of the changes to legislation and of the legislation itself was discussed.  It was stated that if action does not take place before the end of the current session (said to be May, which is now half gone), it is likely to be enacted in the lame-duck session after the November elections.

At the meeting, a Partners for Transit worker identified herself as affiliated with the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.  The Partners for Transit group has been producing newsletters (here is the May 2012 issue which contains some nice maps) and is supposedly a volunteer citizen group.   It has been more or less housed in the WATS office but evidently is now being supported by Conan Smith’s shop (he is the executive director of the MSA).


Fairness and Transit III

March 13, 2012

Is the proposed “countywide” transit funding scheme fair to Ann Arbor?

First, let’s review what the new plan will cost Ann Arbor taxpayers. The Financial Task Force appointed by the AATA to come up with a funding plan were able to reduce the likely millage needed to 0.5 mills (based on full countywide participation). Here are their budget spreadsheets for the first 5 years of the plan: the operating budget, the capital budget,and the summary.  (Their full report and service review subgroup report have some explanations of changes and assumptions.)  After excluding some capital-intensive projects and making some other adjustments, they were able to project that the plan could be done with a 5-year budget gap of $32,877,825; that is, nearly $33 million in new funding must be found to pay for the reduced plan.

An important assumption in the FTF’s budget is that the Transit Master Plan’s services will be extended to the entire county, and the new funding (we still assume that this is a property tax millage, though they took care to deny that this is their recommendation) could be paid by a 0.5 mill tax on the entire county tax base. This appears to be substantially correct. Using their assumptions (no change from 2011, no subtractions for DDAs and other TIF, no change in law to exclude personal property), the 5-year yield from a whole-county 0.5 mill tax would be $32,788,601.  (Here is a spreadsheet summarizing all the TV and millage yields.) (Note: the FTF calculations and all those here are based on the Washtenaw County taxable values table for 2011.  The taxable values for 2012 will not be available until assessments are fully reviewed and apportioned.  This should be any day now.  See our post on city income tax for a discussion of the assessment and tax schedule.)

Washtenaw County participating municipalities shown in green; five townships have declined. Click for larger image.

But as we already know, the full county will not be participating.  According to the response I obtained through a FOIA, 5 of 20 townships have already declined to participate.  If these low-population rural townships’ taxable value is subtracted, there is still a calculated 5-year tax yield of $30,968,566.

Terri Blackmore, the executive director of Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS) has been somewhat the godmother of the countywide transit plan, including its governance structure.  At the FTF meeting, she rose to point out that as municipalities drop out, so will the service to those areas, reducing expenses.  However, on examination, it is clear that these townships would not receive much additional service in any event.  They may have been able to expect more demand services, and to make use of express services by traveling to a city or township nearby.  Eliminating those services to these few residents will not be likely to bring about $2 million in savings.

The “optimistic” scenario (click for larger)

In our earlier post, How Much “County” in Washtenaw County-wide Transit?, we presented a number of different scenarios for participation across the county, each with justification.  Let’s assume for the moment that the “optimistic” scenario is the correct one.  Note that this scenario retains all the cities (except Milan), the more urbanized townships, and several more distant townships that have reason to be more amenable to a regional plan.  They represent the greatest fraction (with the city of Ann Arbor) of the taxable value of the county.  Still, the 5-year total is still only $26,912,443 – a $5-6 million shortfall of the amount needed.  The townships who have dropped out are still not heavily served by the TMP, so again the savings are not likely to be high.

But Ann Arbor (and the city of Ypsilanti) are still contributing the full amount of their charter millages, so as other communities in the county drop out, the total tax contribution of those two cities rises in proportion to the rest of the county.  This effect is exacerbated by the drop in the new millage from 1 mill to 0.5 mills.  And since (under what is actually a set of very generous assumptions) there is already a “budget gap” again, the burden is likely to fall on the remaining communities disproportionately, since they will have to carry the truly regional aspects of the TMP with less support.  This will inevitably lead to more fare increases, loss of service, or perhaps additional tax demands.

Percent tax paid in a single year by Washtenaw County communities (the “optimistic” scenario), based on 2011 TV and 0.5 mill new millage. Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti millage rates based on FTF assumptions.

So taxpayers of the city of Ann Arbor (who make up almost exactly 1/3 of the population of the county: 113,934 vs 334,791; thanks to Steve Bean for challenging me to make this comparison) are expected to pay more than twice that relative percentage in property taxes in order to support a “county-wide” transit system.  If you own a house that has a TV of $100,000 (which means that it has a supposed market value of $200,000, depending on what year you bought it), you will be paying $250 each year to support the new transit system.

Is that fair?

In the next post we’ll explore what fairness, and its cousin, equity, mean in this context.

UPDATE:  For a full apples-to-apples comparison, here are the amounts and percentages of tax paid in one year by all currently participating communities.

Tax paid by all participating communities (including 15 townships and all cities and villages), assuming a 0.5 mill tax plus existing charter millages. (2011 valuations)

Assuming that all communities currently participating in the u196 process also remain in a new authority,  94.5% of the taxable value of the county will be included in the new tax.  However,  the City of Ann Arbor represents 35.7% of that TV, and because Ann Arbor will be paying tax at a rate Five Times that of all communities other than the City of Ypsilanti, its tax contribution to the new transit authority is still nearly three-quarters of the total.

UPDATE: Northfield Township has now withdrawn from the Act 7/u196 organization. This means that the “optimistic scenario” above was in indeed optimistic.  Six of the twenty townships in the county are now out of the picture – and the formal decision hasn’t even come to them yet.

Fairness and Transit II

March 10, 2012

Is the countywide transit plan fair? (The sequel)

In our previous post, we introduced the idea that a major underlying factor in discussion of the countywide plan (an umbrella term that includes the TMP and the proposal to incorporate a new transit authority: see this post for a discussion of the differences) is the concept of fairness.  So much of the back-and-forth has been about the question of who will pay vs. who benefits, and how fair that is.

Let’s review the proposition briefly.

  • The idea is that the current Act 55 Ann Arbor city transit authority (AATA) will eventually be disbanded and its assets (both hard capital assets like buses and shelters, and financial reserves) will be turned over to a new Act 196 authority (currently being called the New Transit Authority) that has a broader potential geographic reach.  See our post, AATA: Moving Us Along for some description of the process.
  •  But to give the new authority a solid revenue base, Ann Arbor’s perpetual millage (voted into the city charter by the citizens and thus sometimes called the “charter millage”) is proposed to be transferred to the new entity.
  • The City of Ypsilanti, which also has a charter millage, would do the same.
  • This transfer of charter millages to the NTA is the only purpose of the 4-party agreement, approved as amended (pdf of draft, as amended, that was approved) by the Ann Arbor City Council, March 5, 2012.  (See brief report from the Ann Arbor Chronicle here.)
  •  The NTA would also levy a millage across the entire county (or the parts that didn’t opt out of it) to support additional services.
  • Depending on the level of that millage (both 1 mill and 1/2 mill have been discussed), it has been acknowledged that taxpayers of Ann Arbor will pay the greatest share, perhaps about 2/3, of the entire local tax collected to support the Transit Master Plan, which is also referred to as the “county-wide plan”.

Some basic questions

  1. Is it fair if taxpayers in rural communities (the “countywide” in the table below) who will receive some, but not much, increased service, pay for an enhanced system with some strong urban biases?
  2. Is the proposed arrangement fair for the communities other than Ann Arbor who are part of the urban network?
  3. Is it fair if Ann Arbor taxpayers pay most of the cost of a county-wide system?

 The “countywide” rural communities

As we discussed in a couple of former posts about politics of a millage vote and the likelihood that various local units might drop out of a “countywide” organization (5 townships out of 20 have already declined to participate), the history and politics of the other communities in Washtenaw County is that they are very resistant to voting for increased taxation, since even half a mill is a substantial fraction of their current taxes.

  • The actual service improvements being offered to many of the more rural townships are minimal. In most cases, only a commuter express bus is being proposed for the outlying areas. Express buses do not serve the needs of individuals who are not mostly commuting to a job in Ann Arbor. Hours are restricted and “demand” service (for the disabled and elderly) does not automatically go along with express bus service. (With a fixed bus route, Federal rules require demand service at no more than twice the fare for a fixed route, but that requirement can be evaded with express buses.)

The Transit Master Plan overview, as prepared by consultants Steer Davies Gleave. Click for larger view.

  • Note in the table below that only about 10% of operating costs are proposed for bus service and demand service outside the urban area. (The “urban network” is roughly described by the green blob with yellow lines in it above.)
  • Also, a significant percentage of the long-term expense is for high-capital projects like commuter rail, which doesn’t directly benefit those more distant communities.  (Note that commuter rail, the airport service, and the long-distance express bus services could be said to enhance the economics of the entire area, so might be argued to have a diffuse but real benefit to rural communities.)

Summary of combined operating costs for different types of service, from Financial Task Force November 2011 distributions

The non-Ann Arbor communities that are part of the urban network

Some communities are currently paying for AATA (fixed route bus) services, under what is called POSA (Purchase of Service Agreement).  Those POSA would be revoked under the Act 196 NTA, since those communities would be part of the new transit regional authority.

The City of Ypsilanti has a dedicated millage for transit of approximately 1 mill.  Actually, that millage does not go directly to AATA as tax receipts.  Instead, it is used to pay the POSA for the service that Ypsilanti has had in the past. (See the route map.) Originally, there was no money to pay for this service in Ypsilanti’s increasingly stressed city budget.  For a while the cost was borne by Federal stimulus funds.  Then, the citizens of Ypsilanti voted in the charter millage (a really brave and forward-looking act on their parts).  Recently, because of changes in the AATA chargeback schedule, the millage amount fell short of the required amount to pay the POSA, causing consternation in Ypsilanti’s City Council.  But the service has not been curtailed, and even better, recently service on Route 4 has been increased at no additional cost to Ypsilanti (the amount not covered by Federal formula funds is paid by Ann Arbor taxpayers).  Still, the on-and-off-again bus funding has led Ypsilanti’s mayor Paul Schreiber to support the 4-party plan at a public hearing in Ann Arbor “to stabilize Ypsilanti’s bus service”.

Now that the City of Ann Arbor has (provisionally) approved the 4-party agreement, the baton passes to the City of Ypsilanti.  My information is that it (the agreement) is on the March 20 council agenda.

The City of Ypsilanti’s budget problems are simply staggering.  For an overview, see Mark Maynard’s discussion of the consequences of the nonapproval of a city income tax.  On May 8, Ypsilanti’s beleaguered taxpayers will be asked to approve both a 1% income tax (0.5% for workers in Ypsilanti who live elsewhere) and an additional millage to pay off debts.  Ypsilanti’s property tax millage is already the highest in the county (for 2011, it was 33.6731, over twice the City of Ann Arbor’s at 16.4660 and miles above any township).  In spite of this, the city has gone through round after round of service cuts.  One problem was an ill-advised attempt by the city to dabble in development.  The Water Street Development, a failed exercise in urban redevelopment, left the city with bond debt and unaffordable payments.  So on May 8, in addition to the income tax vote, residents are being asked to vote themselves an additional 4.7085 mills merely to retire these bonds.  (The Ypsilanti City Council is now expecting that they will not need to levy the full amount.)

To POSA or not to POSA?

Ypsilanti City and three other Washtenaw County municipalities currently pay POSA (purchase of service agreement) contractual amounts to AATA for specified services.  They are all within that urban network seen in the map above.  POSA charges are calculated yearly using a formula to pay actual “loaded” costs of the specified services.  In general, POSA amounts are part of a municipality’s general fund budget and are paid right off the top of their discretionary revenue.

Here are the amounts these communities currently pay in POSA charges, and the total tax that would be raised if the countywide millage were applied instead.  Note that the POSA charges would disappear.

*Amounts for Ypsilanti City are calculated differently. Its tax rate would include the current 1 mill plus the additional countywide millage.

As is quickly evident, the total tax dollars paid by each municipality would be considerably higher with the new transit plan.  The difference for all but Ypsilanti City is that the municipal budgets would save money and the costs would be transferred to their taxpayers.  Because Ypsilanti City would be a signatory to the 4-party plan, while the accounting method would change (a direct transfer of their millage to the NTA rather than a check), their taxpayers would continue to pay the current millage amount plus the additional millage.

This might not seem too bad a deal for Ypsilanti City, considering that they are already receiving enhanced service without paying for it and there are many of the other enhancements to the urban network will serve them directly.  But whether their anguished taxpayers will agree with this as they face two more impending tax measures is a different question.

For the other municipalities, it does not appear that they will immediately see markedly different service levels.  The current routes that are being supplied with fixed-route buses may see some hour and frequency enhancements, and more Park and Ride lots and transit hubs might be built.  But new fixed route lines look to be unlikely in the near future, based on the maps that have been provided.  Thus, whether taxpayers from Superior, Ypsilanti and Pittsfield townships view the change as “fair” probably depends in part on whether they view the general increase in connectivity over the county to be beneficial to the overall economic climate and thus to themselves.

Complications to the who pays, who benefits question

All the discussion so far as been based on the assumption that the voters of the county will vote in a new millage to support a new transit authority.  The talk for the last several years was that it would be 1 mill.  However, this has now been scaled back to 0.5 mill.The recommendations of the Financial Task Force, issued on February 29, are just that, recommendations.  The FTF has no actual authority and is not the final planning body for the new authority, which does not yet exist.  Thus, its projections are merely hypothetical.  Nevertheless, they were able to arrive at the 0.5 mill amount (which they style as a mere placeholder, not an actual recommendation for a millage) by stating that the capital-intensive commuter rail and connector programs should not be folded in to the 5-year plan (thus allowing a smaller budget gap to be addressed by a millage).

This recommendation is apparently being sidestepped by AATA.  As its CEO Michael Ford says in his executive summary for March 15,

Capital intensive portions of the original program were removed with the caveat that alternate sources of funding should be secured to support the service.However, the planning and development of the capital projects will continue, but will not be slated to utilize the new local funding source.

Now this is a puzzling statement.  Money is fungible and if an activity costs something, it comes out of the total budget.  So if the FTF considered the total budget and recommended the exclusion of activities that are being carried out anyway, the money has to come from somewhere.  AATA has, of course, had budgets for many years in which certain funds (like Federal formula funds) had to be allocated to specific services.  But it is dizzying to consider an accounting system that somehow segregates general tax funds in such a ways that one dollar goes to allowable uses and another is held back.  The sleight of hand is less impressive when the quarter falls out of the cuff.

The inescapable conclusion is that the additional millage paid by former POSA communities will, in part, be used for commuter rail and connector projects.  (Though these might depend heavily on Federal and private funding, they will require some local funds.)

Another factor in the calculation of benefit vs. additional payment is that the FTF also recommended (in order to make this package fit into its tighter garment) that fares be raised an average 50 cents.  So while the former POSA communities are paying more in property taxes, their transit riders will also be paying more to ride.

Is that fair?

Next: the conclusion.  Is this plan fair to Ann Arbor?

UPDATE:  The final version of the 4-party agreement as passed by Council on March 5 is here.

SECOND UPDATE: Note the comment regarding the meaning of the 4-party agreement below.  There is additional justification for my statement that the 4-party agreement is necessary only because of the transfer of the two city millages.

THIRD UPDATE: A commenter also raised the issue of availability of demand (“paratransit”) services. Though the Financial Task Force recommendations themselves make no reference to lowered expectations for these services (apart from a fare increase), the report from the subcommittee signaled that they may be regarded as optional, depending on funding.  The quote is from their presentation on February 29, 2012.

“Adjustments to estimated Countywide Door-to-Door service costs – reduced estimated usage volume based on A-Ride’s experience with the proportion of eligible population that are active users.”

Fairness and Transit: Where AATA Is Moving Us

March 1, 2012

Is the countywide transit plan fair?

Underlying many of the debates about the “transit transition” – whether we should move to a new type of  “countywide” transit authority – is a question of fairness. For most government programs some people will always pay more than they receive in benefits and others will receive them while paying almost nothing. We have generally accepted that in order for society to work, we must pool our resources and distribute them on the basis of need.   But we hate it when that isn’t done fairly.

Because of the tax revolt that started in the 1970s and most recently with the rise of the Tea Party, this question of fairness in taxation vs. benefits is a constant source of friction among us.  Many people now think that they should receive a direct benefit from paying taxes, in a payment for services rendered model.  This has a lot of problems, including that it is sometimes hard to recognize the benefit.  A thought-provoking recent article in the New York Times revealed that some of the people (and the states) that have become most vehemently opposed to taxation and to government benefits are the ones who most benefit from those programs.  As the article says, “Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it.”, yet those who consider themselves middle class are increasingly dependent on government programs.  Paul Krugman reflected on this in an excellent column and pointed out another study that “points out that many beneficiaries of government programs seem confused about their own place in the system… that 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 percent of those on Medicare say that they ‘have not used a government program.'”  He concludes, “Presumably, then, voters imagine that pledges to slash government spending mean cutting programs for the idle poor, not things they themselves count on.”

The need for fairness is apparently built into our very nature.  A great deal of research with both animals and humans indicates that we are “hard-wired” to a sense of fairness.  So while children can readily be socialized (and may not require much) to share their cookies, they will protest loudly if they are required to give them all away.   This is an example of distributive justice and we feel it on behalf of others as well as ourselves.  It is reflected in actual brain activity and some studies have shown that aggressive behavior can result if actions are perceived as unfair to the group.

One way this is often expressed is the concept of “social equity”.  Except for those serious tax-haters, most people still recognize that we should, in effect, redistribute resources (wonkspeak for “money”) from those who can afford to pay to those who have less but who still have human needs that we recognize as a societal responsibility.  I’ll share my cookies with you rather than see you go hungry.  But note that concept of the “deserving poor”.  If you eat my cookies and then pull a candy bar out of your back pocket which you eat in front of me without sharing, I’m going to be angry.  Many people are suspicious that others are in essence doing this, taking benefits and then using their own resources for private purposes rather than paying their own way.  “Paying your own way” can either mean that you put just a small contribution into the common pool, or that you carry out some obligation that you have accepted as a condition of receiving the benefit.  An example would be that you use a scholarship to obtain a degree and become a productive worker, rather than spending it all on beer and pizza.

Regions used for the survey (click for larger map)

AATA has endeavored over the last several years to start a broad public discussion about public transit, how it is used, what its importance is, how desirable it might be.   There have been endless public meetings, press releases, and educational materials about their Transit Master Plan.  (See Moving You Forward for history and the TMP reports.)  There have also been surveys to gauge public response, and the latest has finally been released.  The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s account is probably the most accessible way to review the results.  (The full set of presentation slides is here.)  It is clear that public acceptance of transit is very high.  Almost all the respondents (91%) said that transit was important, and the AATA itself got a positive rating from 89%.  But once the subject of how this will be paid for was raised,  approval became more fractured. The overall response to the question,  “would you be likely to vote for a 1-mill tax to support an expanded program?” was 59% (after some discussion of the issue); but this was strongly influenced by geography.

The survey was taken in four geographic regions (the full report that discusses actual distribution of samples has not yet been released), and the results differed by region.  While 68% of Ann Arbor residents said that they definitely or probably would vote for a millage, 56% of Ypsilanti and Pittsfield residents, 48% of Saline and eastern townships, and only 42% of the western townships, including the city of Chelsea, gave this positive answer. (Click to see a full-size chart.)

The telling reasons behind reluctance to vote for a millage even when approval of the idea of transit is so high are (quoting from the Chronicle):

They were asked about the idea that it’s unfair for everyone in the county to pay for a tax that mostly benefits Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. And they were asked about the idea that it’s unfair for people in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to pay more than others for transit benefiting everyone. A roughly equal number of people agreed or strongly agreed with each of those sentiments (32% and 30%).

In other words, the underlying question in many minds is really a question of fairness.

Next: evaluating the question of fairness in the transit transition.

Note:  Other posts in this series are listed on the Transportation Page.

UPDATE: The final report on the survey is here.
Like any 97-page report, it will take time and study to analyze, but it gives an interesting insight into the difficulty of conducting a proper survey (sampling controlled, etc.) under the current conditions in which many people, especially younger ones, no longer have landline telephones that are listed in public directories.