By Ralph Echtinaw
The Alma City Commission is asking St. Louis, Ithaca and Pine River Township to put a millage on the ballot this year to support Dial-a-Ride bus service in those municipalities.
St. Louis City Manager Kurt Giles said that Alma City Manager Matt Schooley told him that Alma commissioners will likely end Dial-a-ride service to St. Louis if such a millage isn’t passed. “Matt indicated that he believes the commission’s desire is to have us in with the millage or not provide the service,” Giles said.
Alma Transit Center Director Brett Baublitz put it in starker terms: “Service for any area that doesn’t pass a millage will end,” he said via email.
The earliest that such a proposal can be on the ballot is in August.
Pine River Township Supervisor Kevin Beeson said via email that he is “working with Alma, Ithaca, and St. Louis to get a full understanding of what the proposal does and doesn’t include. It’s a complicated issue. I am hopeful that we can arrive at an understanding of what the scope of the proposal entails, along with its estimated cost. I can’t speak for my board, but I suspect if the request is reasonable we will proceed with the others and provide our voters with the opportunity to support public transportation.”
Currently, Alma property owners pay 0.96 mill for the Transit Center bus service, while St. Louis makes an annual cash contribution. Last year it was $10,000. If voters approve a one mill levy for Dial-a-Ride the contribution would soar to $54,000. But no one is saying, so far, what the requested millage should be.
Although the Michigan Department of Transportation pays 58 percent of Alma Transit Center costs, the program is cash poor, said Baublitz a year ago at a St. Louis City Council meeting. “The reason for the loss was an attempt to expand our service and try new ideas. We were providing our service for little to no cost which resulted in the loss. I believe that this allowed us to find out what works and that there is a large demand for our services in areas other than Alma.”
That was the result of a pilot program initiated by Matt Schooley, Baublitz said via email. “Alma Transit looked into expanding service during Matt Schooley’s time here,” he said. “He had a pilot program to see if there was a need for transportation in areas other than Alma. When I first took over, the service was already being provided for the City of St. Louis for a few years. My problem was the City of Alma should not have to finance transportation services for other municipalities. Now that the pilot program is over, it’s time for the people to decide if they would like us to continue or not.”
Turns out there was considerable demand for Dial-a-Ride bus service outside Alma.
Dial-a-Ride buses picked up 8,302 passengers in St. Louis last year, 8,037 in Pine River Township and 539 in Ithaca (in addition to 44,286 in Alma).
“If Ithaca, St. Louis, and Pine River Township pass a millage for their municipalities they will have service,” Baublitz said. “The other parts of the county would not receive service at this time. However, we would still pick up those people in other areas of the county due to our contract with Gratiot Integrated Health Network.”
The health network contributes $65,000 a year to Dial-a-Ride to provide service to its patients. The Alma Walmart kicks in $4,000 a year.
City Councilman George Kubin noted that a similar public transit millage was rejected by voters about 30 years ago.