Voters deciding on regional transit, county leadership, education funding 

Down the ballot

On Nov. 8, metro Detroit voters will confront ballots filled with plain names and mundane descriptions of bills and proposals. But make no mistake, many of these items have complex histories and unexpected futures. Some are tinged with controversy. Others have significant social and economic implications for the coming years.

What follows is a summary of some of the races and proposals across the region that have, for better or worse, captured the attention of the region. If you're a local reader, chances are you'll already feel passionate about something here. But, if you're here to learn, read on.

Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency millage

One of the most divisive proposals facing Wayne County residents is the Regional Educational Service Agency's millage request.

The agency is looking to raise and distribute $80 million among the county's 33 school districts, which serve more than 226,000 students. Districts have struggled with declining enrollment and minimal financial assistance from the state.

The proposal calls for a six-year, 2-mill property tax that would generate an extra $385 per student. The additional funds would be used at the discretion of each district to help reduce class sizes, upgrade technology, hire teachers, and strengthen literacy programs.

The plan has split county residents almost evenly in the past, when 51 percent of voters in 2014 rejected an identical proposal. Some school boards opposed having the issue on this year's ballot, while 27 of 33 superintendents publicly supported it, according to RESA Superintendent Randy Liepa.

"We're two more years into school districts struggling under the existing school finance system," Liepa says. "Schools, just for basic services, are underfunded in the neighborhood of $1,000 per student."

When asked why the proposal was brought back for the 2016 ballot, Liepa says, "There's a recognition that this really is the only game in town and there are no other ways to augment [the schools'] programs."

The revenue is collected based on property values but distributed according to district enrollment (the Detroit district would receive the most, $18 million annually). A Detroit News editorial argued against the tax hike because "wealthier parts of the county would be subsidizing the poorer areas."

Charter schools are ineligible for the money since state law prevents them from collecting millage revenue.

Wayne County Third Circuit Court judge

Former Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano is in the race for Third Circuit Judge. During the primary, he was among 21 candidates seeking four seats. Ficano was the only candidate to receive the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association's "Not Qualified" rating, which indicates that a "candidate is not qualified at the present time for the judicial office which he or she seeks."

In 2014, Ficano lost his bid to be re-elected as county executive for the fourth time in light of a stunted Wayne County Jail construction project and a federal corruption probe involving bribery, wire fraud, and obstruction of justice. Although Ficano was never charged, several of his aides were, and his political career came to an abrupt halt.

Eight candidates are being considered in the general election. In the order of votes received in the primary, these candidates are Wanda A. Evans, Thomas John Hathaway, Melissa Anne Cox, Brian L. Morrow, Kelly Ann Ramsey, Ficano, Matthew A. Evans, and Regina Thomas.

Regional Transit Authority

millage

Perhaps no other issue on the upcoming ballot has prompted more discussion than the RTA master plan.

The plan envisions an interconnected four-county region (Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne). A 20-year, 1.2 mill property tax would raise $3 billion for public transit improvements, including cross-county bus connections, commuter express routes, multiple rapid bus routes, airport shuttle service, a rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and more.

The tax measure is expected to cost the owner of a home with a taxable value of $78,856 — the average in southeast Michigan, according to the RTA — about $95 a year. In addition to the $3 billion raised by the millage, the region would also have access to $1.7 billion in state and federal funds. This would be a new tax, not a replacement, for residents in the four counties served by SMART, DDOT, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.

The pro-millage campaign has been led by the nonprofit Citizens for Connecting our Communities and supported by a number of corporations, health care companies, local and state politicians, labor unions, and publications including The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. The RTA had to demonstrate that 85 percent of the money raised in each jurisdiction would go back to that jurisdiction to appease some of its former opponents, including Oakland and Macomb County executives L. Brooks Patterson and Mark Hackel.

The main opposition is a group called nomassiveTransitTax.org, which argues that the tax is unreasonable and pays for some services that are already being provided. Their most vocal spokesperson has been former state legislator and current Michigan Taxpayers Alliance Chair Leon Drolet (R).

Drolet told MT that his reasons for opposing the transit plan are threefold. He believes it will only create administrative difficulties, cause extensive traffic problems, and that it is a relic of the past.

"It's not a plan that's built around the future of transit," Drolet says. "Uber and Lyft are individualizing transit. Chariot is utilizing small transit vans. We don't know what's going to happen with driverless cars in the next 10 or 15 years ... This doesn't modernize us."

Oakland County executive

After defeating Mark Danowski in the Democratic primary, former state Rep. Vicki Barnett (D) will face incumbent L. Brooks Patterson (R) for the Oakland County executive seat.

Patterson served as Oakland County prosecutor for 16 years before winning his first term as county executive in 1992. He is running for his seventh and last term. Patterson has received praise for his effective management of one of the most affluent counties in the country. He's also known for remarks perceived as racist toward black Detroit residents and Syrian immigrants. His platform includes creating more jobs in Oakland County's knowledge-based economy, lowering taxes, maintaining a balanced budget, and furthering the technological capabilities of automobiles.

Barnett is a former two-term mayor of Farmington Hills who has represented the 37th District in the Michigan state House, where she also served on the House Tax Policy Committee.

Economic development is a primary concern for Barnett. She hopes to diversify the kinds of jobs available to Oakland County residents, with particular emphasis on agriculture as an emerging sector. Barnett would also focus on improving county infrastructure, protecting lakes and streams from fracking, and lowering poverty rates by investing in anti-poverty and educational programming.

Macomb County 13th District commissioner

Speaking of Drolet, there's also this race to consider. According to Drolet's website, he decided to contend for Macomb County 13th District commissioner after incumbent Joe Sabatini "voted to give his own position a 15 percent pay increase" and that of his uncle, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco, a 30 percent pay increase.

Drolet beat Sabatini decisively in the August primary. If he defeats opponent Martha O'Kray (D) in November, he has pledged to redistribute the money earned from the pay hike to taxpayers by dividing the after-tax portion of his paycheck into $500 segments and raffling them to any Michigan resident who enters a free drawing. You can enter the raffle on Drolet's website.

Macomb County public works commissioner

It shouldn't be surprising that Drolet has even had an influence on the closely watched race for Macomb County public works commissioner. After Drolet filed a complaint that led the Macomb County Ethics Board to investigate and eventually fine Anthony Marrocco (D) for allegedly using public resources in his re-election campaign, the incumbent's hold on his position is anything but guaranteed.

Marrocco was accused of taping campaign commercials on county property operated by the public works department. According to the county's ethics ordinance, public servants are barred from campaigning on county property while performing official duties.

Marrocco is up against U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R), who has been endorsed by Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. Miller has won seven consecutive elections to Congress since 2002, and formerly served as Michigan's secretary of state and Harrison Township supervisor.

In light of the recent federal investigations into the Rizzo Environmental Services corruption scandal, which has led to the resignation of Rizzo executive Chuck Rizzo Jr., Marrocco and Miller have distanced themselves from campaign money given by that company. Rizzo is the largest trash hauler serving the metro Detroit region.

According to the Detroit Free Press, Marrocco announced that the two PACs supporting him will send money donated by Rizzo to the Care House charity, which serves child abuse victims, in Mount Clemens. Miller's campaign manager Jamie Roe told the Free Press that her campaign also returned every contribution from Rizzo.

Michigan's 7th Congressional District

The race for the U.S. House of Representatives in Michigan's 7th Congressional District — which includes a portion of Washtenaw County, among others — has been called one to watch, according to Ballotpedia.

Incumbent Tim Walberg (R) faces competition from Gretchen Driskell (D). Walberg, a pastor from Lenawee County, has served four terms in this position. He is also chairman of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee. Driskell, a former mayor of Saline, represents the 52nd District in the Michigan House of Representatives and is a member of the Agriculture, Elections, and Communications, and Technology Committees.

"I think that the people in the 7th Congressional District do not feel that they've been represented," Driskell says. "It's about jobs and trade and their frustration with what's happening in the 7th around the economy."

Ads against Walberg have criticized his support for four trade deals in Congress, which outlined trade agreements with Peru, Colombia, Korea, and Panama. Driskell has decried such trade deals as detrimental to American workers and manufacturers.

In a statement to The Detroit News, Walberg's communication director Dan Kotman said Walberg would not vote for the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In a forum in October at Adrian High School, both candidates expressed diverse opinions on the federal government's role in local education, economic development, and infrastructure while mostly agreeing on matters of immigration and the future of Social Security and Medicare.

Transformational brownfield

projects proposal

Call this a special mention. The future of this proposal, which has broad support from Republican representatives, isn't up for voters to decide directly. However, a potential (if unlikely) influx of Democrats in the Michigan House could influence its outcome.

Dan Gilbert's umbrella company, Rock Ventures LLC, is pushing a five-bill package in the state Senate that would let developers use state sales and income taxes to pay for large-scale real estate projects, according to Crain's Detroit Business. The passage of these bills would likely facilitate some of Gilbert's own projects, including the redevelopment of the former J.L. Hudson department store site and the proposed construction of a $1 billion Major League Soccer stadium.

The plan would give developers diverse funding options for difficult projects that involve cleaning contaminants on potential construction sites, called brownfields. Sales and income tax generated by visitors and residents of mixed-use properties, which combine commercial and residential use, would help offset costs.

In a Senate committee hearing, Rock Ventures' principal Matt Cullen said, "As a state, we don't have the economic development tools we need to unlock the large-scale, transformational projects that are going to truly move the needle in revitalizing our cities."

Developers would be reimbursed with money that would otherwise have gone to the state, and it is still unclear what the full financial impact will be. An estimate by the Senate Fiscal Agency estimates the state could potentially lose between $15 million and $45 million in income tax revenue. The agency says that the bills would place no limit on the amount of revenue a developer could capture. Cities would be limited to one brownfield project a year.

The brownfield proposals have received support from cities such as Grand Rapids, Flint, Saginaw, and Detroit. Gov. Rick Snyder, who would have to sign off on the proposals, is believed to be a tough sell. He has resisted efforts to add or restore tax credits in the past, most notably in 2011, when his business tax reform eliminated key incentives.

More by Aaron Robertson

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