The Emmet County transit service, EMGO, will be terminated at the end of this year following a vote by Emmet County Commissioners Thursday, Aug. 20. The service has been operating for approximately two years.
As reported, the commissioners received an analysis of the transit service earlier this month from county administrator Michael Reaves. Essentially, the service takes funds from the county general fund to operate and it has become increasingly difficult to find those funds.
“The problem with the Emgo transit allocation is that it does not come from a millage backed or special fund; it comes directly from our general fund,” Reaves noted in his report. “Mandated public services and other costs of government must also compete for the same resources that EMGO takes. The situation cannot continue forward and be sustained.
“At this point of this year, we are not able to project exactly what our completion of the current fiscal year will look like, or what next year’s budget needs will be. Every year since its inception, we have struggled with appropriate funding for the EMGO service.”
The options Reaves outlined included:
“Leave everything, as it currently is: continue to fund EMGO in its status and struggle every year with allocating general fund resources to this non-mandated service; continue to struggle with the ability of staff to devote the time needed to EMGO. If this option were employed, an additional staff person would have to be considered in the up-coming budget year –which will add additional pressures to this consideration financially,” Reaves wrote
Another option, he said, would be to “give the Emmet County Friendship Center funds for a part-time bus driver.”
“This would allow for the most vulnerable seniors (seniors over the age of 60, any disabled individual) transportation needs. This cost is established at $25,650.00 and would begin in 2021. We could also choose to not reimburse the Friendship Center any additional funds, in which they would have to readjust their current resources to accommodate the increased capacity / or returned capacity to their transit system.”
The third option Reaves wrote about was to create a single EMGO route instead of the three, based upon the state formula. Reaves said this would “utilize the less costly option with all grants and continued Cares Act funds (If these funds are available and guaranteed thru 2021) at an expense of approximately $40,000. If not all of the grants associated with, the discounts are met –especially the Cares Act funds – this option could then balloon to almost $80,000.” The fourth option, Reaves explained, would be to terminate the existence of EMGO.
At the commissioners regular monthly meeting, Aug. 20, another alternative for maintaining the transit service was formally presented by Jessica Stoepker, representing Leadership Little Traverse and Friends Enhancing Emmet County Transit (FEET), among others. That option was an independent transit authority with the ability to seek an operational millage tax from county voters.
There was no real follow up discussion on that option by commissioners at the meeting, however.
Commissioner James Kargol opened the discussion by making a motion to terminate EMGO service following a 30-day notice to Straits Regional Ride, the Cheboygan County entity through which the EMGO services are contracted. That motion was seconded by commissioner Charlie MacInnis.
Commissioner Neil Ahrens then made a motion to amend the motion to having it terminated at the end of 2020. Following a second to the amendment, discussion began.
“I believe we committed to the people of the county to go the full year (providing the EMGO service),” Ahrens said. “COVID notwithstanding, we should stand by that.
“Everybody is going through a lot right now,” he said. “People are trying to get to doctor appointments, trying to live their lives. We have to take care of our budget, but we also have to take care of the people of Emmet County. We are dealing with people’s lives.”
“What we are saying is that in 30 days, people will not have a vehicle to get around, to get housing and food,” commissioner David White said.“I think we need to honor that commitment.”
Chairman Bill Shorter concurred.
“We did make a commitment and 30 days notice is not enough. We budgeted for this and we do have money in the budget for it. (Ending it in 30 days) is an unnecessary burden. Let’s extend it to the end of the year and maybe other efforts in the community will come forward.”
The vote on the amendment to extend it until the end of the year before terminating the service was unanimous.
The vote on the overall motion to terminate the service was not. Commissioners Ahrens, Shorter and White all voted no. However the motion to terminate EMGO at the end of the year did pass as commissioners Toni Drier, Izzy Lyman, Kargol and MacInnis all voted in favor.
Commissioners also voted to enter into negotiations to transfer funds not to exceed $26,000 to the Emmet County Friendship Center to hire an extra part-time driver for their transit service.
In a follow-up interview, District 3 commissioner Charlie MacInnis it is up to the board to set priorities and he would prioritize Bay Bluffs Medical Care Facility above transportation. MacInnis is the Emmet County representative on the Bay Bluffs board and shared a grim financial update on the facility with commissioners at the meeting Monday (see related story).
Further, MacInnis said he is “100-percent opposed” to the transit authority concept.
“I think it is very Petoskeycentric and would involve having this separate entity composed of people who are not elected by the people of Emmet County collecting a tax from those people and deciding how to distribute those tax dollars.
“We (Emmet County Board of Commissioners) were elected to do this job.”
For more information, including agendas and related information as well as audio recordings of board meetings, visit EmmetCounty.org.