Oakland County lawmakers float plan opposing regional transit bill

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Sen. Ruth Johnson speaks with Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel outside the State of the County address of Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter on Feb. 12. Johnson, a Holly Republican, distributed "demand the plan" flyers outside the event urging residents to demand Coulter provide information on an expected regional transit tax.

Lansing — Two Oakland County lawmakers have introduced legislation in the House and Senate to combat a regional transit plan with Detroit and Washtenaw, Oakland and Wayne counties. 

Sen. Ruth Johnson and Rep. Andrea Schroeder, both Republicans, introduced bills that would allow the governing bodies of municipalities to opt out of any joint endeavor within 30 days of that plan being proposed and 60 days before the proposal is placed on the ballot. 

“We should not be asking people to pay new taxes for which we know they will get little or no benefit; that is a basic American principle of fairness,” said Johnson of Holly.

The legislation responds to a bill introduced last fall by Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, that would allow for a regional transit agreement between Detroit and Washtenaw, Wayne and Oakland counties ahead of a ballot proposal in which the counties would ask voters to approve a property tax increase to fund the agreement. 

Neither House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, nor Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have taken a position on any of the legislation related to a potential regional transit plan. But Chatfield and Shirkey have been involved in discussions with stakeholders regarding Sheppard's bill, according to their spokespersons.

The legislation, which is awaiting a vote by the full House, would allow voters to approve a municipal partnership tax by a majority vote within each county; would exempt any transit tax from the county’s overall millage cap; and earmark all tax revenue to the transit plan, instead of diverting some to tax-capture programs.

It would also ensure counties could bring a proposal to the ballot through a vote of the board of commissioners, rather than through resolutions of support from each community within the county.

The legislation introduced this week by Johnson and Schroeder is "premature," given the status of current plans for a regional transit authority, Sheppard said. 

“There’s no millage, there’s no millage request, there’s no contract between counties,” Sheppard said. "The problem with opt-outs is, where does it end? If the state administers a tax, can now we allow counties to opt out of paying that tax?"

The new legislation from Schroeder and Johnson attempts to sidestep county boards of commissioners, which could define the footprint of any eventual transit plan in Oakland County under Sheppard's bill, Oakland County Executive David Coulter said. Residents also will have an opportunity to weigh in on that plan in town halls and community meetings before it goes to the ballot, he said. 

"We’re trying to give everyone as much opportunity as possible to have input on the plan," Coulter said. "...Getting the plan right is more important than the timing.”

Oakland County Executive David Coulter delivers his first "State of the County" address at Flagstar Strand Theatre in Pontiac, Michigan on February 12, 2020. Coulter was appointed executive in 2019 following the death of longtime Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

The county board of commissioners typically is the body that recommends a countywide millage for the ballot, be it for parks and recreation or public safety, Coulter said. Communities aren't able to opt out of the countywide initiatives and regional transit should be no different, he said. 

"If you start to do a Swiss cheese approach, it falls apart,” Coulter said.

In January, the Oakland County Association of Township Supervisors officially opposed the legislation, noting in a resolution that it lacks “any discernible benefit for residents of most of the Oakland County townships.” It also could cost the townships $2.9 billion if the full five mills allowed under the law were levied over 20 years, according to the association's resolution. 

Johnson and Schroeder of Clarkston said their legislation could allow the communities to pose a ballot question with the capacity to raise up to $18 billion in new taxes over the next three decades. There's little indication ahead of the bill’s passage what the regional transit plan would actually entail, they said.

Johnson and Schroeder’s legislation would allow communities to opt out of the plan after it has been presented but before it is put on the ballot so communities whose governing boards oppose the plan would not have it placed on their ballot. 

The inability for individual communities to opt out under Sheppard's legislation is problematic for northern Oakland County communities that may already have transit options available, Schroeder. said 

“We have our own services,” the Clarkston lawmaker said. “We at the local level know better what our seniors need, our disabled, how we can get them around, and move them around quickly, efficiently and for a lot less money.”

A third Oakland County legislator, Sen. Jim Runestad, co-sponsored the legislation with Johnson and Schroeder and opposed legislation that would allow for the regional taxes. 

“Taxpayers should be protected from paying for services they don’t want, don’t need and won’t use,” the White Lake Republican said. 

Past transit plans encountered opposition from Republican former Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Democratic Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel because a majority of RTA board members — such as Wayne and Washtenaw counties and Detroit — could set spending plans over the objections of the minority. 

Oakland County, Patterson argued, would pay too much into the plan while reaping fewer benefits.

The county executives and boards of commissioners of Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties are all controlled by Democrats. 

In 2016, a regional 20-year, 1.2-mill property tax increase ballot measure for the system was defeated. An effort to put a new $5.4 billion, 1.5-mill regional tax hike proposal on the 2018 ballot failed after opposition from Patterson and Hackel.