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Neighbors need a ride: NOTA considers expansion

October 27, 2010 - Love thy neighbor as thyself-just be careful when they start asking for favors.

Orion Township officials and those from the surrounding community are exercising caution and looking closely at details after representatives from Independence Township inquired about hitching a ride with the North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA).

Barbara Rollins, Independence Township Senior Center Director did not return a call from the Review, but Orion Township Trustee JoAnn Van Tassel said to her knowledge, the issue was indeed financial.

"They have two full-time drivers who are union employees," said Van Tassel, who also serves as the township board's representative to NOTA, as well as the NOTA board chair. "So Independence Township is paying them higher wages, providing a benefit package and so on. That gets pretty expensive. The NOTA drivers get $11 and hour and that's it. No benefits."

Those drivers, who operate NOTA's 16 busses and vans from the organization's base in Oxford, average about 36 hours every week, she added.

Van Tassel was first to hear from the task force assembled to tackle the transportation issue in Independence Township, and said she wants feedback from each municipality involved in NOTA's current intergovernmental agreement, which was updated over the summer.

"Before the NOTA board goes any further we are asking each township to discuss with board members see if they are in favor of contract with another," she said.

Currently, NOTA provides free rides to senior citizens, disabled individuals and welfare-to-work program participants living in Orion, Oxford, and Addison.

According to documents on file with the State of Michigan, NOTA served 33,600 total passengers in 2009.

Orion Township trustees discussed the issue when it was brought to the regular Oct. 18 meeting.

"(The Independence Township drivers) would have the option to become NOTA employees," Van Tassel told fellow board members, noting NOTA would insure and maintain the vehicles, as well as provide dispatch service and drivers, but the vehicles would continue operating out of Independence Township rather than moving to the Oxford location."

NOTA officials laid some preliminary figures out for Independence Township.

"We discussed charging $15,000 per month or $180,000 per year," Van Tassel said, adding that if the plan came to fruition, the service would begin about Jan. 1 for Independence Township riders.

If either side isn't satisfied, the contract would not be renewed and vehicles would return to Independence Township.

Currently, the Independence program employs two full time drivers and operates five vehicles through the township's Parks and Recreation Department.

"All the Independence Township vehicles have some issues with meeting SMART standards," Van Tassel told the board.

Orion Township Supervisor Matthew Gibb acknowledged he's been touting the necessity of shared services among municipalities and other entities for a long time, said he wasn't completely opposed to the idea.

"Orion has history of being very generous when it comes to these intergovernmental relationships," said Gibb. Who sits on NOTA's 11-member advisory board. "I hope we're not too generous. I'm interested in seeing a formal proposal."

Trustee John Steimel said he wasn't against "helping out another community," either.

"But there are some details I'd be concerned about," he said, "so the NOTA program itself doesn't get stuck with something down the road we didn't anticipate."

Trustee Neal Porter crunched the numbers and pointed out that $180,000 annually, based on ridership numbers provided by Independence Township, calculates out to about $25 a trip.

"It shouldn't break NOTA financially to do this," Porter said.

According to Van Tassel, NOTA incurs an average of $22 in expenses per each roundtrip.

The Independence Township program, which had 7,190 riders in 2009, serves residents age 55 and up and those with a disability.

Unlike NOTA, the Independence Township program does not offer welfare-to-work transportation, and requests a financial contribution from riders; a $6 donation for each in-town round trip and $10 for a round trip hospital visit.

Rider donations cover about 7 percent of operation costs, with additional funding arriving through government grants, Municipal Credits, specialized services, other donations and the Independence Township general fund.

In addition to Independence Township residents, riders who live in the City of the Village of Clarkston or Springfield Township and meet program criteria are also eligible to use the service.

Both those communities contribute their Municipal Credit funds to the Independence Township program for the benefit of their respective riders, as well.

Some of that may change.

"Springfield Township isn't a piece of what Independence Township is seeking right now," Van Tassel said, noting later she wasn't excluding the possibility of including Springfield Township if the community was interested and others agreed.

Springfield Township Clerk Laura Moreau said she hadn't heard anything about the Independence Township request to NOTA.

In fact, the Springfield Township Board of Trustees allocated Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to the Independence Township transportation program at its October meeting.

Officials representing the Independence program, she added, made a request for and received $2,500 in Springfield Township CDBG funds.

Moreau said that, according to documentation provided by Independence Township, 23 Springfield residents are served with an average of 50 rides per month; Independence Township estimates 40 hours and 700 miles a month to service Springfield Township.

According to VanTassel, Orion Township and Addison Township trustees are, for the most part, willing to move ahead cautiously.

Oxford Township Supervisor Bill Dunn said his board would discuss the issue at its next meeting.

-CJ Carnacchio contributed

to this report

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