“No contract, no vote,” Rapid leadership clashes with ATU over contract negotiations

Tensions have recently risen between the Interurban Transit Partnership (also known as The Rapid) and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 836, a union representing most of the bus drivers for the Rapid. After two years of operating without a union contract, the Rapid remains unable to successfully negotiate a new contract with ATU 836.

Though the conflict has been brewing for some time, it boiled over starting this July, when nearly a dozen protesters from ATU protested a Rapid news conference for the launch of a new fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.The protest, according to ATU member Louis Dushane, was a “warning to the Rapid.” Louis went on to indicate that, “if they don’t give us a fair contract, we’re going to organize against their millage that they want to pass this fall.” Though Rapid leadership was quick to downplay the incident and the conflict, ATU members remain dissatisfied.

After members of the ATU voted not to ratify the Rapid’s proposed contract on August 27, Rapid CEO Peter Varga claimed they were committed to reaching an agreement, despite two years of negotiations ending with another failure. ATU 836 President Richard Jackson noted that 65% of eligible union members voted against the agreement, a devastating indictment of the inability of the Rapid to come to terms with the union.

With the mantra “No Contract, No Vote,” many union members are repeatedly and rightfully expressing their dissatisfaction with Rapid leadership. Protests have been heating up since the rejection of the contract in August, including an incident where union member Louis DeShane was arrested at a Rapid board meeting. “For being at a legal protest, I would say I was not treated right,” DeShane said. “I’m at a legal protest and being taken away by the police – it seems a little facist by The Rapid.” Most recently, union members were shouted out of a Grand Rapids city commission meeting during another protest against the Rapid.

During that protest, Democratic candidate for the 77th district seat in the State House, Robert Van Kirk, summed up the conflict succinctly: “I’m for public transit; public transit is essential – especially if we want to have good living conditions, good working conditions in the metro Grand Rapids area. We cannot have one without the other. You have to have good public transit and you have to have working conditions that are good and pay that is equitable.”

The Rapid bus service is broken and needs reform – for bus drivers, mechanics, and riders. The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance urges a “No” vote on November 7.


Opposition to Transit Renewal Launches its Campaign in Kent County

Today, the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) announced the official launch of Kent Transit in Action. Kent Transit in Action is organized to oppose the upcoming tax renewal for the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP), also known as The Rapid.

“Despite ridership data showing the wide presence of empty buses operating throughout the bus system wasting taxpayer dollars to transport little to no passengers,” said spokesman Eric Larson, “The Rapid is pushing for an extended renewal of the millage on municipalities throughout Kent County, including Grand Rapids, Walker, Grandville, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, and Wyoming.”

The Rapid has continued to expand the number of buses and lines operating over the past five years despite a nearly 10% fall in ridership since its peak. At the time of the razor thin 64 renewal vote margin in 2011, buses carried almost 7.5 people on the bus. Today that number has fallen to less than 6.4.

“With the adoption of the Silverline,” Larson continued, “more and more traffic is shoved into fewer and fewer lanes, as Rapid buses close down Division Avenue and Monroe Avenue lanes during rush hour. Far from relaxing the little congestion there already is in Grand Rapids, Rapid bus lanes have only made traffic worse.”

These issues pale in comparison to the exorbitant cost posed by the proposed tax renewal. Should this measure pass, taxpayers will be subsidizing the Rapid’s operations to the tune of nearly $15 million annually. From the 1.47 mils proposed to levy, 0.5 mils (nearly $5 million a year) would fund the Silver Line.

The Silver Line, which has notoriously failed to live up to grandiose promises of speed and ridership, doesn’t even traverse a number of communities purportedly served by The Rapid, including Grandville, Walker, and East Grand Rapids, with only token stops in Kentwood and Wyoming.

The Kent County Taxpayer Alliance urges a NO vote on the upcoming Rapid tax renewal.

Rapid CEO Peter Varga receives bonus on eve of tax renewal

In just shy of two months, The Rapid will be seeking a renewal of a 1.47 mils tax. The millage will ostensibly be sufficient to help support its operations for another twelve years, to the tune of $14.8 million annually. Though the millage renewal is a short time away, the Rapid’s oversight board saw fit to award Rapid CEO Peter Varga a $4,500 “merit bonus” last month.

Peter Varga’s bonus, while only a negligible chunk of the overall budget, is another in a long line of wasteful financial decisions by The Rapid. The Rapid, operated by the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP), has a long history of benefiting their executives and their organization at taxpayer expense, with no benefit for riders of taxpayers. It is enormously disrespectful of Kent County taxpayers to urge the passage of yet another millage, while siphoning off thousands for bonuses to ITP executives like Peter Varga (on top of his already ample compensation of over $200,000 a year).

Proponents of the millage will no doubt assert its necessity for continuing “vital transportation services’, even in light of stagnant ridership numbers. Despite grandiose assurances from previous expansions like the Silver Line, which failed to deliver promised ridership and revenue, the Rapid’s supporters will breathlessly assert that, with a little bit more money, everything will work just as they say.

In truth, the tax renewal will go to line the pockets of ITP executives, keep empty buses chugging along the roads, and for more empty central stations.

The KCTA urges you to vote NO on the upcoming Rapid millage.



Vote NO on the KISD Millage Tax Increase

On May 2, voters in the Kent Intermediate School District will be asked to decide whether or not to approve a 0.9 mill increase to their property taxes for 10 years. The tax means that the homeowner of $100,000 of taxable property will pay an addition $900 over the length of the tax. Of course, we will be asked to renew it in ten years which will be billed not as a tax increase but simply a renewal that won’t raise your taxes at all.

Kent County Taxpayers Alliance recommends a NO vote on this measure because of the following:

  • There is no significant shortage of school funding to our schools in Kent County. Per-pupil spending from 2012-2015 has increased in all but three school districts. The increases average 10.58%.
  • Superintendent salaries are far outside of the range of most working and professional families in Kent County. Aside from Kent City schools, all heads of the school systems make at $183,000 per year with the superintendents of Grand Rapids, Rockford, Forest Hills, and KISD making $329,000, $297,000, $281,000, and $258,000 respectively.
  • That Grand Rapids superintendent pay of $329,000 is a 37% increase over the 2012 pay of $240,000.
  • The tax will be unevenly distributed between the school districts as those districts with higher property values may end up providing far more tax revenue than they receive back for their district.
  • The school districts have been engaging in propaganda which we feel is inappropriate and against the spirit of the state election laws. This video produced with taxpayer money minimizes the cost to homeowners while pointing out an imaginary shortfall of inflationary funding. The “funding gap” cited is from an organization hired to prove funding gaps and put pressure on legislators to spend more on education. Proponents of this tax increase should not be able to use public sources to pay for support and should use the usual campaign finance process that everyone else has to use.
  • Affordable housing is in short supply in Kent County and increasing property taxes will make it even harder for struggling working families, refugees, and young adults to find a place to call home.

Our belief at KCTA is that the school districts are proposing too large a request of taxpayers at a time when schools have not done an adequate job of controlling costs at the administrative level. The tax also is an inefficient way to fund school districts as there will undoubtedly be net losers and winners in this tax scheme since property values vary so much between districts across Kent County.

We urge you to vote NO May 2 on the KISD tax hike. Please distribute this fact sheet to your friends and family and share on social media.

SB 571 Would End Taxpayer-Funded Electioneering

Governor Snyder is currently considering whether to sign SB 571, which would, in part, prohibit local governments from engaging in electioneering prior to a tax issue appearing on the ballot. While many municipalities have come out against this bill, the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance is supporting it because we have seen an increasing number of situations where local governments are flouting the state’s campaign finance laws.

One recent and glaring example is in August of 2014, when the City of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Public Schools published, in their newsletter sent to every household in the city, an “editorial” from Mayor Heartwell expressly advocating a yes vote on Proposal 1 from that year. The newsletter, available here, attempts to get around the campaign finance law by claiming that its express advocacy is merely an opinion and not a piece of campaign literature. The City of Grand Rapids has taken the position that it may engage in any electioneering at all as along as it is part of the city’s regular newsletter. The newsletter, paid for with city funds, and excerpted at right, clearly uses language prohibited by the campaign finance act when it says “We urge you to vote YES on Proposal 1 August 5!”

SB 571 is badly needed to counter this behavior. This is but one example of local governments getting more and more bold with spending significant sums on advertisements just around election time. These thinly veiled election ads aren’t simply about informing voters or publishing non-biased information on an upcoming tax issue; they are campaign ads, plain and simple.

Another example is the below television ad published by the Grand Rapids Public Schools just before a bond election last year.

Local governments should be prohibited from engaging in this type of election activity. Supporters of local tax issues should be required to create a campaign committee and file campaign finance reports, just like everyone else. SB 571 would address this issue and level the playing field.

One Year Later: The Rapid’s Silver Line Bus Route is a Bust

It’s been nearly a year since the $40 million Rapid Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line opened for business, so we thought it would be a good time to check up on how things are going.

In short, it’s a disaster:

  • Since the Silver Line entered service, The Rapid has been losing ridership
  • The Rapid is now losing millions operating the Silver Line
  • No new economic development has been caused by the Silver Line

Read the full article on our ITP Watch web site.

KCTA Opposes Proposition 1, State Sales Tax Hike

Statewide Proposition 1, which will be on the ballot Tuesday, May 5, will amend Michigan’s constitution to enact a permanent sales tax increase from 6% to 7%, a 17% increase. The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance opposes this constitutional amendment because much of the money being raised is not going to roads at all, but other government entities.

“This is a general tax increase, not a road tax,” said Dr. Eric Larson, president of KCTA. “The state doesn’t need another tax hike of $2 billion a year.”

While proponents refer to the tax increase as one for about $1.3 billion for roads, the passage of the ballot question would trigger other tax increases as well, such as higher gas taxes and higher car and truck registration fees. Only about 60% of the total tax increase would go to roads, while the rest would be spread amongst other local governments, in order to garner their support for the issue.

“We see local bureaucrats promised additional funding if the constitutional amendment passes,” said Dr. Larson, “and now they’re spending tax money to campaign in favor of a tax increase. It’s inappropriate and insulting to voters.”

KCTA encourages those who wish to help with defeating this proposal to contact the organization formed to oppose the issue, Protect Michigan Taxpayers.

How fast will The Rapid’s Silver Line bus be?

According to data from The Rapid, the average speed of the new Silver Line bus rapid transit (BRT) route in Grand Rapids will be about 17 miles per hour. Peter Varga, the head of The Rapid bus system, says that the speed will be about 22 miles per hour along Division and about 10 miles per hour on the rest of its route. Despite the usage of the term bus “rapid” transit, this is only slightly faster than the average bus that The Rapid operates, and is slower than about a quarter of its existing routes.

Read our entire article here.

KCTA calls on Grand Rapids city leaders to avoid the appearance of impropriety

KCTA_logo_2014-01Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance called on Grand Rapids city leaders to take a stand against the appearance of impropriety in regards to the upcoming city income tax increase election on May 6. According to an article in the Grand Rapids Press, the campaign urging a “yes” vote is largely funded by private companies that appear set to gain significant revenue from the city if the tax increase passes.

“We believe that the Grand Rapids city commission should stand up and show that they reject any appearance of impropriety by passing a resolution barring any company that contributes to their tax increase campaign from bidding on city projects that result from the tax increase,” said Eric Larson, spokesperson of the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance.

Of the over $23,000 that the “yes” campaign has raised, nearly two thirds was raised from companies that appear to stand to directly benefit from the city’s proposed spending plan, including construction, lobbying, and engineering firms.

“Millions of dollars of spending is on the line,” said Larson, “and it’s only right for city leaders to distance themselves from appearing to reward those who donate to political campaigns. Taxpayers need to be confident that the process isn’t corrupted.”

KCTA also notes that City Commissioner Walt Gutowski, who owns Swift Printing and voted in favor of putting the issue on the ballot, is directly and personally benefiting from the “yes” campaign. More than $6,500 has been spent with his company for campaign materials by those favoring passage of the tax increase.

Tips for appealing your 2014 property tax assessment

Michigan homeowners have the right to appeal their assessments to the local board of review if they feel the assessment is incorrect. It is important to note that many review boards meet in March, but dates vary by each municipality, so be sure to contact your local assessor. Newly-enacted legislation requires the assessment notice to be mailed out at least 14 days before your local board of review meets.

The property tax appeal process has a very tight window and each municipality does things slightly differently. For instance, in the City of Grand Rapids, you must first submit the attached form to the Assessor’s Office for an Assessor’s Review. The deadline this year is February 14, 2014. The Assessor may accept or reject your appeal, at which time you can request a meeting with the March Board of Review. If you’re not happy with the March Board of Review result, you may appeal to the Michigan Tax Tribunal.

Download KCTA’s 2014 property tax assessment appeal guide.

Steps for Appealing

  1. Immediately contact your city, village, or township assessor’s office and ask about their assessment appeal process. They may have a form for you to fill out and they will tell you their submission deadlines. These deadlines are very strict, so you must have your form submitted before the deadline. Simply mailing before the deadline does not count.
  2. Obtain a copy of your property tax worksheet or appraisal card. This is available from the local assessor’s office. The worksheet lists information such as size of house, style, number of baths, etc. Ask the assessing department to fully explain how to read the document. You may also obtain worksheets for similar properties which recently sold in the area to help determine the value of your property. Many cities put this information online.
  3. Carefully check the worksheet for errors. If you notice any errors, the assessor may agree to change some of the information or figures at that time. If not, you will have to make your case with the board of review. Your worksheet may include a “percent good” calculation which shows how much your home has depreciated. For example, a 10-year-old house may be listed as 90 percent good. Percent good is another factor to use when comparing your home to other homes.
  4. Check with your local assessor regarding your home’s taxable value. For property tax year 2011, the inflation rate multiplier is equal to the ratio of fiscal year 2010 average consumer price index divided by the fiscal year 2009 average consumer price index. Again, as a result of Proposal A (and therefore under the State Constitution), a property’s taxable value cannot increase by more than the increase in the U.S. consumer price index or 5 percent, whichever is less. In addition, a property’s taxable value cannot exceed its state equalized value.
  5. Inspect the inside of your home. As noted in Step 3, the “percent good” is the way an assessor depreciates the value of a home based on its age, meaning normal issues common to older homes are not considered in the specifics of the assessment. However, problems not associated with general aging, such as a cracked foundation or wall construction problems, should be specifically addressed in your appeal. Written repair estimates and photographs of structural damage are good evidence of defects which could affect property value.
  6. Note changes to your neighborhood. Realtors say location is the single most important feature in determining the value of your home. If you live near a major road or in a mixed-use zoning area, for example, your home may be less desirable than the same home in a purely residential neighborhood. If the characteristics of your neighborhood have changed, obtain copies of citizen complaints about excessive noise or eyesores and show this evidence to the board.
  7. If you recently purchased or refinanced your home, determine whether your purchase price or your appraisal is lower than two times your SEV. Providing this documentation to the board of review does not guarantee a lower assessment, but it will help strengthen your case.
  8. Inform your assessor about personal property included in the sale price of your home and detailed on the purchase agreement. One of the most common mistakes home buyers can make is to fail to inform the assessor of personal property and other valuable items included in the sale and detailed on the purchase agreement. Personal property items often included in a home’s sale price, such as furniture, curtains, a washer or dryer, etc., are exempt from assessment. If you did not inform your assessor in writing about these items, your assessment may erroneously include this value.
  9. Compare your property to similar homes in the area, especially those that recently sold. Comparable property assessments are one of the most important tools when appealing your property assessment. If comparable properties are assessed lower than yours, your home may be over-assessed. Check the assessed value, type of house, and zoning. Compare the true cash value per square foot. Keep in mind that comparisons should only be made between similar types of homes. (Compare two stories with two stories, ranch houses with other ranch houses, etc). An excellent online tool for looking at homes that recently sold in your area is available on the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors web site at www.grar.com and click on “Find Prices of Recently Sold Homes!”
  10. Either write a letter to the assessor or use the form they provide. A sample appeal letter is attached.

Also view the City of Grand Rapids assessor’s appeal form.