Regional Transit Authority's fiscal blues

Feb 26, 2014 at 4:10 pm

"We'd love to pay additional taxes to support the RTA!"

Steven Potter's probably a bit pissed off today.

The Oakland County representative of the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority raised a point of contention last week during the board's monthly meeting. Why, he asked his colleagues, would we re-open a search for a CEO when the money's not there to pay the executive's salary?

The lack of funds served as the chief reason why the board's initial pick to lead the agency, John Hertel, stepped down. Without additional help from Lansing, Potter told his colleagues, the search would be futile.

"I don't understand why we're going to open the search without administrative funding," Potter told the board before a 6-2 vote in favor of re-opening the search. "There is talk in appropriations, but it hasn't happened. ... Until it happens, this is a useless act. You're going to run into the same problems that caused Mr. Hertel to resign."

Potter's "appropriations" reference was to a $2 million earmark in a supplemental appropriations bill currently being hashed out in Lansing. Without the boost, Potter's likely correct: The next pick for CEO would have little support to hire a staff, and, most important, have the resources needed to prepare for a 2016 ballot campaign.

Last week, the state Senate Appropriations committee approved the funds. But today, the Detroit Free Press reports, the House Appropriations committee nixed that budget line item and sent the bill to the full House for consideration.

State Rep. Joe Haveman, the House Appropritions chairman, said the reason behind stripping the funds was simple: Backers of the RTA legislation said a $500,000 appropriation contained in the bill would suffice.

“There was some concern that when we passed RTA last year, that we were told that there wouldn’t need to be more funding,” said [Haveman].

Turns out, Joey, they were wrong: John Hertel, general manager of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, the initial pick for RTA chief executive, never signed a proposed contract and, eventually, stepped down because there was no money.

So, now what?

Hillegonds said at last week's meeting that a Plan B was in play, in case the $2 million appropriation fell through. He tells Metro Times this afternoon that, "We're still focused on Plan A [the $2 million appropriation] if the line item is not inserted."

As the Freep reports, if the full House green-lights the supplemental appropriations bill, it'll likely go to a conference committee with the Senate to reach a happy medium.

Hillegonds says the agency will urge House members to get on board with the Senate to shake loose the requested $2 million; this coming at a time, mind you, when the state has a nearly $1 billion budget surplus. Considering Lansing seems hell-bent on rolling back income taxes and letting our shitty roads completely swallow us whole, I'd say the RTA earmark stands as much of a chance of passing as restored JFK-era top tax rates. Prove me wrong, Lansing.

The Plan B isn't nearly as desirable, the chairman says: There's roughly $800,000 identified by the Michigan Department of Transportation that could be used during the next fiscal year. But, come next year, they'll be faced with the same set of circumstances again: an organization essentially living hand-to-mouth, while sending hopes and prayers that the state legislature will chip in some additional help.

The $2 million appropriation, Hillegonds says, would suffice until 2016, when voters could approve a tax to support operations of a bus rapid transit project. He says the agency currently has about $800,000 on hand. The search for the next CEO is expected to commence in the coming days.

But, really, without additional funds, what kind of CEO candidate is the RTA going to draw during the next search? What qualified candidate would gladly take up such a Sisyphean task? Potter said as much before last week's vote.

"I question the quality of an applicant you would receive," Potter told his colleagues before the vote. "When that applicant knows there's not a commitment to support the RTA's administrative budget ... why would I want that person running the RTA? I wouldn't, because to me that's incredibly short-sighted on this person's part."

Haveman's "we were told" remark struck an odd tone to us. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder championed the effort to enact RTA legislation, shipping it through the pipeline as a slew of other shit was being hashed out in the 2012 lame-duck session (i.e., the revamped Emergency Manager law, the bill allowing the new Red Wings arena to move forward, Right to Work).

What were Snyder's thoughts on the RTA after it passed both both chambers of lawmakers?

“We don’t spend enough time celebrating success ... Today is a day to celebrate success for both short-term recovery and long-term growth.”

If the governor's right, and we don't spend enough time celebrating success, it's likely because we don't spend enough money to ensure it in the first place.

(Photo credit: Flickr user stringberd)