County looks at possible transit millage request

July 29, 2012
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Members of the Kent County Executive Committee, a group comprised of commissioners and top administrators, recently dove into a what-to-do scenario centered on the possibility that a request for a new transit millage may be coming.

The request wouldn’t be made by the Interurban Transit Partnership, a six-city coalition that financially supports the area’s daily bus service provided by The Rapid. Instead, County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish indicated the possible request would come from a group in the northern part of the county where more transit service is reportedly needed.

“It’s an expansion,” said County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio.

“It’s an expansion, but not necessarily of the bus line,” said Parrish.

The group also is looking for someone to step forward to advocate for a countywide millage that would provide more transit service for seniors, low-income individuals and the disabled throughout the county. “The county is not in the business of advocating,” said Delabbio.

If a request is made, it would be based on the findings of a countywide transit-needs study collaborated on by the Grand Valley Metro Council, Kent County and ITP in 2010. It was awarded a state grant and was conducted by RLS & Associates of Dayton, Ohio. The results were issued a year ago and a key finding showed that 15,500 residents weren’t being served by a demand-response transit service. Two other findings revealed that 12,900 residents weren’t being served by a fixed-route service and 1,730 didn’t have access to a commuter-express service.

“It really is a patchwork of services that exists in Kent County. People travel on a regional basis, not a local one, and that is certainly an unmet need,” said Kevin Mischler, a senior executive with R&L, in June 2011.

To fill the demand, Mischler said a countywide millage would be needed to provide enough funds to meet operating costs and capital needs. He suggested a millage of 0.000602: 0.000427 for operations and 0.000175 for vehicles. The annual operating cost and revenues were estimated at $13 million. The current transit millage affects only residents of the ITP cities: Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, Kentwood and Grandville.

Mischler said all county residents needed to chip in.

“The benefits would be across the board, regardless of where you live. We want to make sure there is enough funding for both capital and operations. You can’t count on state and federal money, either on the operating side or the capital side,” said Mischler.

Parrish said if a millage request does make it to the county, it will probably look like the county’s senior millage in the sense that a number of service groups would receive funding from it. She added that a lot of demand for increased service was coming from northern Kent County, the areas around Sparta and Cedar Springs.

“But not all the townships favor this,” said Parrish of having a transit millage on the ballot. “The problem is, there isn’t enough money for it. There is probably a network for it. Really, I think the question is, who is going to own this problem?”

Should a request arrive at the county, Parrish said it would first go to the county’s millage subcommittee. “I think it does a good job at being a filter,” she said.

Another subcommittee, the one looking into the sustainability of the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program, is making progress to find a permanent funding source to buy the development rights from farmers. Parrish said the subcommittee has been focusing on creating a community-endowment fund. “We plan to have our recommendation by the fall,” she said.

Parrish also said the county is considering establishing a subcommittee, or possibly a task force, to look further into how the Kent County Land Bank Authority operates. Some commissioners recently said the land bank is picking up tax-foreclosed properties before private investors can, and is “cherry-picking” some of the more desirable properties to rehab, sell and create a revenue stream for operations. But state legislation that created land banks in 2004 doesn’t restrict the organizations to purchasing only blighted properties. The land bank doesn’t receive county funding.

Commissioners recently gave the land bank a green light to buy properties before the parcels go to the public tax auction Aug. 16.

“I thought the discussion was very good at the board meeting,” said Parrish. “I thought everyone was very thoughtful.”

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