County's Transportation Authority seeking millage renewal

THREE RIVERS — The St. Joseph County Transportation Authority has had plenty of importance as an asset for county residents since it was formed in 2002.

In 2019, the service provided 81,965 rides to patrons, and already has reached 75 percent of that total in 2022, something SJCTA Director Al Balog said was a “long time coming” from decreased ridership in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They hope to continue being an important asset to the people of St. Joseph County at the ballot box Tuesday, as they go for a renewal of their operating millage on the primary election ballot for the county.

SJCTA is seeking a renewal of its 0.33 mill rate, which has not increased since it was originally approved. The cost to taxpayers, according to Balog, is roughly $34-$35 annually for the average homeowner with a home value of $100,000.

Of the SJCTA’s operations budget of $2.5 million, the money collected from the millage is roughly $730,000 per year, or 29 percent of the budget, the largest chunk of funding the agency receives every year. The rest of the budget comes from federal and state funding, grants, and fares paid by riders.

“That $730,000 is a substantial amount that we need to continue our operation,” Balog said.

Although Balog said he’s “confident” the millage will pass, if it’s not passed on Tuesday, Balog said they may have to cut services dramatically. A majority of those services, Balog said, are extremely important to older residents and veterans living in the county.

“We take a lot of people to their dialysis in Three Rivers. We have drivers that start at 4 a.m. to have dialysis patients to their dialysis by 5 a.m. We do this six days a week,” Balog said. “We also do a lot of medical escorts for seniors, getting them to their doctor's appointment that could be in Kalamazoo or Grand Rapids. The veterans, every Wednesday, we take them to their doctor's appointments at the VA hospital in Battle Creek. They're very important services.”

In addition, the agency takes children to and from school and adults to and from work every day, as well as takes people to doctor’s appointments in big cities such as Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. The agency also provides free rides to St. Joseph County residents to the polls for any election.

Most notably, the agency runs the Circle Line, bus routes six days a week in Sturgis and Three Rivers that have stops at certain times on the hour that continue throughout the day. Balog noted the Sturgis one is their busiest route, so much so they made additional hires recently.

“We just hired two bus aides, which will be on the bus to assist the riders. A lot of our Circle Line customers in Sturgis are wheelchair bound, and this aide is able to help with that and make sure they're secured properly,” Balog said.

The agency currently has 28 vehicles in its fleet, which include buses and minivans, and 38 employees in total.

Balog said he doesn’t anticipate any big projects if the millage is renewed, he said getting the millage passed will keep the service functioning for those who need it.

“Unless something new comes up we're not aware of, we're doing an excellent job providing the services that are needed and required in the county. We're not looking to expand, we're just looking to continue to exist,” Balog said.

Overall, Balog said he hopes voters get out to the polls to vote on the millage Tuesday.

“I just could not imagine not having public transportation in St. Joseph County,” Balog said. “Even though we're a rural county, it's critical we have this service available.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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