Traverse City News and Events

Commissioners To Consider Free Senior Busing, Animal Control Millage, Salaries

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 7, 2018

A pilot program offering a dedicated free bus for local seniors could eventually expand to provide free Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) rides for all Grand Traverse County residents over 60. County commissioners will discuss the proposal at their 5:30pm meeting tonight (Wednesday), and will also consider the possibility of seeking a millage to fund the county’s animal control department and reinstating salaries for county commissioners.

Commissioners approved a pilot program in November to pay for a dedicated Commission on Aging Senior Transit (COAST) bus that would pick seniors up at their front door and take them in anywhere in Grand Traverse County for free. The bus is outfitted with handicap-accessible lifts and operates on a first-come, first-served basis through reservations. Initially, the bus ran Mondays and Wednesdays from 8am to 5pm; due to demand, Friday service was added sooner after.

According to COA Director Cindy Kienlen, the first two months of the program has elicited steady demand and “very positive” feedback from local seniors. At least 81 unique riders have used the bus for more than 314 trips, and the program has brought in 30 new clients for COA. (Seniors have to be a COA member to use the COAST bus, but registration is free and can be done through a simple phone call to COA, Kienlen says). COA has surveyed at least three dozen riders about the service to assess how the program is working. “BATA has been a great partner with us because of their scheduling,” says Kienlen. “We’ve had absolutely no negative comments, except perhaps extending (its availability) longer and making it available on more days.”

Kienlen will present a two-fold proposal to county commissioners tonight, with the first recommendation being to expand the COAST program. “We would like to increase (service) to four days per week in the third quarter and five days per week in the fourth quarter of 2018,” Kienlen wrote in a memo to the board. “The total cost for 2018 would be $56,850.”

After Commissioner Cheryl Gore Follette suggested at a recent county meeting simply making all BATA transportation free to Grand Traverse County seniors – defined as residents over 60 – Kienlen is bringing that proposal to commissioners tonight to vote on as well. The recommendation suggests offering free rides to all COA clients on any BATA bus starting April 1. Having both programs in place would allow more physically limited seniors who require hands-on assistance from drivers and dedicated front-door pickup – a majority of current COAST clients – to continue receiving those services, while also accommodating the more active senior population who can use BATA’s regular curb-to-curb service and route loops.

According to BATA Executive Director Kelly Dunham, BATA served an estimated 50,000 senior fares in 2017. If those numbers remained consistent, the annual cost for COA providing free rides to all seniors would be roughly $45,000. COA spent almost exactly that much – $43,380 – in 2017 on a combination of BATA passes and cab vouchers for seniors. Kienlen is recommending dipping into COA’s general fund to cover the COAST program, cab vouchers, and free BATA rides in 2018 – educating seniors on the new services that are available – but then eliminating the vouchers next year, using that program’s funding instead to pay for free BATA rides.

Kienlen acknowledges that making all rides free could lead to a dramatic boost in BATA’s senior ridership and thus COA’s costs – a funding scenario commissioners will need to consider when voting on the proposal. But she also notes that commissioners and staff have had ongoing discussions about how to use COA’s healthy fund balance to provide more services to seniors, and says transportation is “one of those” types of services that has high demand among older residents.

Dunham says BATA is ready and willing to work with COA on such an expansion if approved by commissioners. “I would certainly want to do our due diligence in ensuring we roll it out in a way that is sustainable and beneficial to all….but I think we could fairly easily establish a system for tracking ridership and billing COA for those rides,” she says. “It’s definitely a benefit to our seniors that is worthy of exploring.”

Also on tonight’s agenda…
> Commissioners will discuss whether to pursue a dedicated millage to help fund the county’s animal control department. Commissioners recently voted to restore full funding for animal control, boosting the staffing levels to include two animal control officers, one supervisory/animal control officer, and a part-time clerical employee. That staffing level requires an annual $150,000 allocation from the county’s general fund, in addition to revenues brought in by dog license and other fees.

Seeking a millage rate of 0.031 mills would generate $150,000 each year, costing a household with a taxable value of roughly $81,000 an estimated $2.50 per year. If commissioners wanted to seek an August millage, they would have vote on such a measure by May 15. While Commissioner Dan Lathrop sat on the animal control ad hoc committee that discussed a millage option and supported restoring funding to the department, he says he does not support seeking a millage, preferring to keep paying for the department out of the general fund. “I really don’t want to see us raise taxes on residents,” he says. “They pay enough. When I talk to my constituents, they don’t want any more taxes.”

> Commissioners tonight will also consider a recommendation from Interim Administrator Jean Derenzy to reinstate commission salaries. A previous group of commissioners cut the board’s annual pay to $1 in 2016 in a controversial effort to address the county’s pension debt. Subsequent board members have revisited the issue on several occasions, with some saying the salaries should be reinstated to provide fair compensation for a demanding and time-consuming position. After researching commission salaries in other counties throughout Michigan, Derenzy is recommending establishing a salary rate of $9,648 for commissioners and $11,469 for the board chair, which is the average rate of counties similar to Grand Traverse. If approved, the salary rates would go into effect January 1 with the next new slate of commissioners.

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