BELDING — There are many residents in Belding who utilize the city’s transportation service, Dial-A-Ride, a fleet of five buses that assists residents in their travels to locations around town such as the grocery store, work, church and the like.
There are also residents who have noticed those same buses occasionally sitting idle in town, as the service waits for potential customers who sit on the edge of deciding whether to pay for the city service in tough economic times.
As has been common in communities across the state and country, the recent recession now has once profitable and self-sustaining services, such as Dial-A-Ride, in a financial bind.
Belding City Manager Meg Mullendore approached city council members with a proposal on July 16, with the possibility of asking residents to vote for a millage to help support the public transportation service.
“The Dial-A-Ride transportation system — I hate to use this word — but it’s more of an amenity, it’s not a core-critical service,” Mullendore told members of city council. “We’re getting to that point in local government where you have to start looking at the core-critical services, the services we have to provide to the taxpayers.”
According to the city’s website, the Dial-A-Ride service, which operates weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., costs $2 per adult, $1.50 per student and $1 per senior or disabled person to ride.
As much as $80,000 to $110,00 is subsidized from the city’s general fund each year to operate the service, however, according to Mullendore,
“We are limited in what we can charge in fares,” she said. “If we increase fares, we eliminate ridership.”
Mullendore said the program has reached a point where serious discussion is needed in regards to the future of the city transportation service.
Mullendore told council members they need to decide whether to continue to allow the general fund to subsidize the program, funds she said could be used for core-critical services such as city infrastructure, or put the measure on the ballot to allow voters to decide if a tax increase is necessary to support the program.
Mullendore said she would like council members to approve language for the upcoming November ballot by way of 1.25 mills, the first of two proposals discussed that evening for millages on the November ballot, with the second being a millage increase for the Life EMS Ambulance service.
Council member Joe Feuerstein had concerns as to what would happen if the millage for Dial-A-Ride made the ballot but was voted down.
“If this millage does not pass, what happens?” he asked.
Mullendore said she believes the city could continue to subsidize the program, however, “probably in five years, we’ll have to look at scaling it back.”
Mullendore said the program has lost revenue and witnessed a decline in ridership due to the recession, which she estimates will not begin to trend upward for another two to five years.
“I think if we have a better handle of what the financial future is going to be we could ascertain whether or not we would need (the millage) to continue for another year or two years,” she said. “It would not be a perpetual situation. We will eventually have that upswing of the economy again. It’s just taking much longer than forecasted.”
Mayor Pro Tem Andrea Belding said she doesn’t believe a millage is the way to proceed going forward.
“When you speak of forecasting, in my opinion, Belding’s upswing is going to take even longer,” Belding said. “We already have the highest tax base in the county. We’re one of the highest in the state. We’re already struggling to draw businesses here.”
The city’s millage rate, in comparison to other communities in the area, according to Belding, is 20 mills higher for non-homestead properties, which consist of commercial, business, industrial and rental units.
“If we’re talking between two mills (for Dial-A-Ride and Life EMS Ambulance), we’re talking another $1.60 per every $1,000 of assessed value on a home.
That’s a lot, that’s a huge increase,” she said. “When you’re discussing Dial-A-Ride, it sounds like your forecast is indicating there are going to be issues in five years whether a millage would pass or not. I think it would be more productive to be taking a really hard look at Dial-A-Ride now rather than passing the buck onto our taxpayers.”
Belding said she doesn’t believe a tax increase would fix the problem with Dial-A-Ride.
“There is no way, sitting here, I will vote for any more tax increases, ever.”
Mayor Ron Gunderson said he does not want to see the city lose the Dial-A-Ride service.
“I hate to see this go away, I really do, because I do think it is utilized,” Gunderson said. “ I think the thing about Dial-A-Ride is we have so many people in this town who don’t have vehicles and they rely on Dial-A-Ride strictly for transportation. I understand what Andrea is saying as far as raising the taxes and not wanting them to be higher, but we have people who don’t even own vehicles.”
Gunderson described the situation as a catch-22, without an easy solution.
“As much as you want help, as a city, where do we stop to make sure that our checkbook is balanced versus making sure that the people are getting where they need to go?” he asked.
Gunderson said he wished the state would step in and “come up with a way to help subsidize us,” though he admitted funds are already received through the Michigan Department of Transportation and various grants related to the Pere Marquette Depot building, where the program is operated from.
“I don’t want Dial-A-Ride to be lost,” he said. “It’s something for the community and I do believe the community needs to make the decision on this.”
Council member Mike Scheid said though he isn’t in support of a tax increase of any kind, he believes the decision should ultimately be left to the voters.
However, he agreed with council member Tom Jones that the wording of a ballot proposal would need to be very specific to guarantee that funds that would be freed from the city’s general fund would be used as intended, for infrastructure projects such as repairing city streets.
“Let’s be very specific about how we word this and why we want the extra money,” Scheid said. “We want to open up the general fund so we can do more infrastructure things.”
After approximately 30 minutes of discussion, no motion was made on a ballot proposal.
Belding and Gunderson asked Mullendore if it were possible for her to meet with Dial-A-Ride Director Keven Krieger to work together to find a solution to the program’s financial woes.
“Do you feel you would have between now and next year to have an opportunity to look at the numbers, to be able to adjust the fares, without bringing this (ballot proposal) back to us in a year’s time?” he asked.
Mullendore said she believes she could eventually find a solution.
“In essence, it’s doing an audit. It’s very doable,” she said.
Council members voted unanimously 5-0 to table the proposal until a later date in 2014, giving Mullendore a chance to thoroughly analyze the Dial-a-Ride program.
Council members then briefly discussed a second ballot proposal for the Life EMS Ambulance service.
“The contract with the Life EMS Ambulance Service currently takes approximately $25,000 from the general fund and will increase over the next two year to $28,000,” Mullendore said. “Presently, we have nothing that offsets this cost and it is directly funded from the general fund.”
Mullendore asked council members to support language for a ballot proposal that would ask voters to approve a 0.35 mill.
Council members, following along the same mentality that they do not want to see taxes increased for the residents of the city, did not make a motion to approve the proposal.
A motion to table the decision for a later date in 2014 was approved 5-0 by council members.