Andrew Trzaska | December 11, 2012
With the failure to pass one of two ballot proposals to fund Senior Transit in the City of Muskegon in November, a new stopgap measure proposed by city commissioner Byron Turnquist several weeks ago was defeated in a close 3-2 vote at Tuesday evening’s meeting.
Commissioners Turnquist and Willie German voted in favor of the motion to extend senior transit funding. Commissioner Lea Markowski, Vice Mayor Larry Spataro and Mayor Steve Gawron voted against the measure.
This means funding for the program, which was temporarily extended back in the summer through the end of the calendar year, will end on December 31, 2012.
After the down vote, the city commission voted 4-1 to send out a request for proposals for private companies to provide a comparable service to city residents after the current city program funding expires. Commissioner German voted against this measure.
Extension of the program’s funding was put on the ballot in November in 2 parts; the first proposal specifically spoke to Senior Transit and was approved, but a second proposal that set the city’s millage rate, which was required to fund this program, was voted down. This mixed outcome led to much criticism of the city for the ballot was presented, though the first Senior Transit proposal was worded to say that the second proposal was needed to continue support of the program.
Lines in the sand were drawn in discussions at the two-hour meeting.
Vice Mayor Larry Spataro stood strong on his stance of fiscal responsibility, and openly expressed his opposition to adding to the city’s deficit. Spataro highlighted past cuts he’s had to make, and emphasized several impending revenue cuts and cost increases coming in the next few years, including the pending elimination of the personal property tax.
Spataro even addressed seniors in the audience, who he stated frequently share the limitations of being on a fixed income. Spataro’s address cast the city’s financial picture in a dark light:
“The city is not on a fixed income. It is on a shrinking income.”
Commissioner Willie German countered Spataro’s longview with a here-and-now argument. He urged commissioners to look at the city’s present situation.
“All these citizens are asking for is a little help, to get to the store to get groceries, or to the doctor or to get medication… We have no idea what this winter may be like. On the flip side we give businesses who want to come to town help. Why can’t we give our senior citizens help?”
Mayor Steve Gawron corrected German’s point on business incentives, saying that it was not money given to city but tax abatements.
“It’s not a matter of playing politics. It’s a matter of holding up fiduciary responsibility of all 39,000 citizens we represent.”
Commissioner Lea Markowski drove a line of argument that suggested a transition of services away from the city, and changing the service model to lead to that eventual conclusion:
“I don’t think we need to be in more businesses than we need to be.”
Markowski suggested the city’s Senior Transit was a “duplication of services” with other groups like the Red Cross that offer similar rides. She also suggested contracting out services to a company whose sole goal is to provide transit services.
“If a company is already in business providing this service, they will not have the costs we will have,” said Markowski
To get to that point, she suggested possibly changing operational aspects of the existing program to ease into a private option.
Mayor Gawron questioned the wisdom of the stopgap extensions, described by Spataro as “kicking the can down the road”. He reminded commissioners that before November, a funding extension was given to continue the service through 2012, and a up/down vote at November would settle the issue once and for all. He noted that the evening’s discussion defied that pact that November would be the final say.
Spataro wrapped his comments by being slightly more conciliatory than earlier in the evening. While keeping a hard line on the budget, he suggested an alternative of using the next six months to work on a public/private partnership, as suggested by Markowski.
Markowski wrapped her comments by asking Turnquist to amend his motion to follow her idea of looking for alternatives over the next six months, instead of simply extending the funding without a plan for the end of the fiscal year.
Gawron wrapped his comments by telling Markowski and other commissioners that when previous stopgap measures were passed in the summer, other transit options were presented at that time and those options were denied by seniors as being “not convenient.”
Five part-time drivers will be out of jobs at the end of the year. The request for proposals will be executed over the next several weeks.
Several seniors spoke before and after the vote, and one specifically declared that those who voted against the original stopgap measure had “the empathy of a soapdish.”
Visibly bothered by the comment, Mayor Gawron denied the accusation.
“I don’t think anyone should make the assumption that any of us up here do not have empathy because you don’t know the lives we have lived,” said Gawron.
Commissioners Sue Weirengo and Eric Hood were absent from Tuesday’s meeting.