Breana Noble and James David Dickson The Detroit News
Published 6:26 p.m. UTC Aug 8, 2018
Voters in Oakland and Wayne counties voted Tuesday to continue a millage funding the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, better known as SMART, through 2021 and in Macomb voters approved the measure by the slimmest of margins.
In Macomb, the measure passed by 23 votes. The final unofficial results showed the millage passed 77,502 to 77,479.
Leon Drolet, a Macomb County Commissioner who also leads the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, which opposed the SMART millage, said that if the vote tally holds, a recount petition is “likely.”
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said the close vote owed to an opposition campaign that conflated passage of the SMART millage with the controversial regional transit plan.
“They were so deceptive,” Hackel said Wednesday morning. “One of their mailers had a picture of the QLine on it.”
Drolet took issue with the idea that voters were misled into opposing SMART, adding that August voters are “among the most educated.”
“SMART is not some mystery program,” Drolet said. “To voters, this really is about SMART, not the RTA. It’s a bus tax. If we lose this, we will have missed an opportunity to create the transit we really need in Macomb County.”
As the only county in SMART’s service area that doesn’t allow communities to opt out, Hackel feels voters have spoken when it comes to regionalism, and contrasted it against Wayne County, where some of its largest communities, including the state’s largest city, Detroit, have opted out.
Hackel said he understood, from his conversations with voters, that the vote would be close.
“You can tell people all day that this wasn’t a regional transit millage,” Hackel said. “Some of them just wouldn’t listen. This is a sad reality — I knew this day was coming. I’ve gotten to know voters and their mindset.”
Due to the margin of the vote, if a recount were pursued it would cost $25 for each of the 338 precincts in Macomb County, said Michael Grix, an election specialist with the Macomb County Clerk’s office. That’s a base of $8,450, in addition to $25 for each absentee precinct.
The price tag for a recount, Drolet said, is “daunting a little bit.” But, he asked, “is there any price we can put on getting an election right?”
There is nothing in the law to trigger any automatic recount, Grix said. The county’s Board of Canvassers will meet at 1 p.m. to certify the election results, and will continue meeting until all have been certified.
A person seeking a recount would need to submit a recount petition in the six days after the vote was certified, Grix said.
In Oakland County, the levy passed easily, with 77 percent voting yes, according to final, unofficial returns. Wayne County voters spproved the levy by a margin of 73.4 percent to 26.6 percent.
In a statement, SMART general manager John Hertel said the organization is “thrilled with receiving over 70% of the support from Wayne and Oakland County citizens, especially when they are voting with the pocketbooks and wallets to fund us,” and noted that 55 percent of election day voters supported the millage.
“Frankly, when looking at the negative absentee vote compared to all the other votes, it is confusing,” Hertel said.
But Drolet said that absentee voters are “predictable,” that he and knew the anti-millage effort would have their support.
SMART had no comment on the possibility of a recount.
“SMART has never dealt with these circumstances, and therefore it will require time to research and discuss any decisions,” Hertel said.
SMART officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Drolet sent over digital versions of the campaign literature the group sent to likely primary voters. Five pieces were sent. Four of them were sent to 80,000 voters, and the fifth was sent to 40,000 voters.
None included images of the QLine, but Drolet did say that his own campaign literature, for his successful county commission run, did include such an image. Drolet said that went out to about 3,000 likely Republican primary voters in his district.
The measure will slightly increase the millage in Macomb and Oakland counties to 1 mill, which Wayne County residents already pay.
SMART is southeast Michigan’s only regional public transportation provider. The system provides nearly 10 million rides annually. Critics of the current transit system, however, say there are cheaper and more efficient means to provide the service. Should any of the three counties SMART serves vote its renewal down, service would end in that county within a few months.
Voters last approved a SMART millage that increased the tax from 0.59 mills to 1 mill with 66 percent support in 2014. It helped to balance SMART’s budget and replace old buses.
The Michigan Constitution’s Headlee Amendment, however, limited the amount the tax in Macomb and Oakland counties could increase because their property values rose faster than in Wayne County. Macomb residents pay 0.9926 mills, and Oakland, 0.9863 mills.
A resident with a home valued at $200,000 would pay $100 per year under the 1 mill tax. In Macomb County, that is an increase of 78 cents per year, and in Oakland County, $1.37.
But for Justin Mathis, a SMART rider himself, that increase is too much.
“The elderly shouldn’t have to pay more,” said the 25-year-old who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Macomb County. “They’re already paying to use the buses. Imposing the higher taxes, it’s not cool.”
For the first year, the millage would generate around $71 million. In the last fiscal year, SMART received $69 million. SMART Deputy General Manager Robert Cramer said the money would contribute to the service’s ongoing operations.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, a public transit advocacy nonprofit, public transportation ridership nationally fell 2.9 percent in 2017. In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau reported less than 1 percent of Macomb and Oakland County residents used public transportation, while 3 percent of Wayne County residents did.
SMART’s fare revenue decreased by about $400,000 in fiscal year 2017 to $11.6 million. Ridership fell for its fixed-route service by 4.4 percent and for its connector service — door-to-door, small bus rides — by 5.8 percent.
“The buses are never full,” said Mike Roth, 56, a lifelong Eastpointe resident who voted against the millage renewal. He said the government should find other ways to fund transit services to the elderly and the disabled. “They’ll find the money.”
Ridership in 2018, however, is up 11 percent year over year so far, after SMART introduced its new Frequent Affordable Safe Transit, or FAST, buses in January.
Drolet thinks a voucher system to pay for ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber should replace SMART’s buses. He envisions a system in which individuals would purchase a subsidized transit card that they could use to buy rides from Lyft, Uber, a taxi or a municipality or county-funded bus.
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