“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.

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.

KCTA Opposes Abusive Tax Election in Northview Public Schools District

Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (formerly Kent County Families for Fiscal Responsibility) announced that it is opposing the tax increase election to be held by the Northview Public Schools district on Tuesday, May 8th. Voters rejected the same tax increase request in November of last year.

“Our organization did not take a position on the original tax request last year, but we are opposing it now because this is a classic case of an abusive tax election,” said Eric Larson, spokesperson for the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance. He continued, “We believe that elected officials need to respect the wishes of voters, not schedule election after election until their tax hike passes.”

An abusive tax election is defined as an attempt by a local government body to pass a tax increase shortly after it was already rejected by voters. Michigan’s laws do not prevent local governments from returning to voters every three or four months to ask for the same tax increase, over and over.

Northview Public Schools had two tax issues on the ballot last November; one of them passed, the other did not. The school district has decided to try again on the issue that did not pass.

KCTA will be reaching out to voters in the Northview Public Schools district to remind them to vote and to oppose this abusive tax election.

Kent County Taxpayers Alliance opposed a similar attempt by the leaders of Wyoming Public Schools to pass a tax hike after it was rejected by voters in May of 2011. KCTA got involved when Wyoming tried again just three months later to pass the same tax increase. After KCTA’s involvement, the request failed by an even larger margin.

KCFFR is Now Kent County Taxpayers Alliance

Kent County’s premier (and only) non-partisan taxpayer advocacy organization today announced that it changed its name and reorganized as an independent political action committee. The organization, formerly Kent County Families for Fiscal Responsibility, has changed its name to Kent County Taxpayers Alliance.