January 23, 2013 - Some exploratory discussions will be held between the North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA) and representatives from Independence Township about a possible merger.
The bus service's board of directors voted to establish an Ad-Hoc committee to discuss a possible merger, but officials seemed to question whether a merger would be in the best interests of NOTA's riders in Orion, Oxford and Addison townships along with the villages in each community.
NOTA vice-chairman Bill Dunn said the first priority is to NOTA's current customers, who are senior citizens, mentally and physically disabled individuals and low-income residents.
"We have our priorities and there would need to be a reason to collaborate with communities that bigger than ours. There are a lot of questions. I'm not saying I'm against it or totally for it."
NOTA board member and Orion Township supervisor Chris Barnett said he was in favor of talking to representatives from the other communities but also said any merger would have to be favorable to NOTA's communities.
NOTA Chairman Bruce Pearson said he is concerned that, based on the numbers he's seen so far, it may not be to NOTA's advantage to merge.
Pearson, like other NOTA board members, said he is open to discussions but wants to be cautious.
Even though Independence's transportation service only gave 5,698 rides last year, which is relatively small compared to the 43,914 rides from NOTA 2012, Pearson fears the potential for a dramatic increase in ridership based on population.
NOTA's three townships and three villages have a combined population of 63,359, based on a July 2012 estimate from the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG).
Independence and Springfield townships, along with the city of Clarkston, have a combined population of 50,219.
NOTA's budget for 2013 is $870,551, of which the three townships it serves will contribute $205,000. The rest comes from various grants and a $200,000 contribution from Training & Treatment Innovations, which serves mentally disabled individuals.
Last year, Independence's transportation service gave 5,698 rides to senior citizens age 55 and older and disabled individuals age 18 and older. There is a charge to riders in the form of a "requested donation" of $3 each way and $5 each way for hospital trips to Pontiac and out of the area.
Independence's transportation system brought in $100,000 in revenue from rider fees, donations and grants. However, the cost to operate the system was $157,642, which includes $119,942 in wages and benefits for two full-time drivers.
The $57,642 difference was made up using monies from the Independence Township's general fund.
Independence Township officials also acknowledged that no one from the city of Clarkston or Springfield Township has been involved in any preliminary merger discussion with NOTA. Clarkston and Springfield are partnered with Independence Township.
It is not the first time that a neighboring municipality has inquired about partnering with NOTA. Brandon Township made inquiries several years ago and NOTA officials declined to discuss merger.
Even though it seems like a merger with Independence Township would be a longshot, NOTA officials said they are willing to talk.
"Ridership could swell dramatically," Pearson said. "Once those seniors over there find out they can ride this new service and it's going to go farther, they may have a whole influx of people that decide they're going to take advantage of it. They're going to want the same service, I'm sure, as what our residents get."
"If we go another couple steps (by adding three more communities to NOTA), we may end up losing money," Pearson said. "We need to keep costs under control."
Pearson's also concerned about Independence's six buses and vans, which range in age from two to nine years., while NOTA's equipment is newer and
"They have a lot of older buses; there are only a couple new ones," he said. "Are we going to take over the maintenance of them? Then all of the sudden, we have (to do) maintenance on a bunch of older buses."
Former Leader Editor Dan Shriner will cover Wildcat football this season.