HART busline announces proposed budget cuts, layoffs, service reductions; desires sales tax increase

07/11/07 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Wednesday | Listen to this entire show:

Will Hillsborough residents be able to vote to increase their sales tax? This morning, the Board of Directors of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit or HART bus service said that in order to meet property tax reductions imposed by the state legislature they are proposing bus route reductions, personnel layoffs, and will try to get a sales tax ordinance on the ballot in order to increase funds. Ricardo Roig is Chairman of the Board of Directors of HART. He said that this community is at a crossroads when it comes to transit.

“I don’t want to sound cliché, but I think we’re at a crossroads in terms of what type of organization we are. And I think we’re at a crossroads in this community in terms of what transit means to this community. … Do we want to make a decision at the local level that transit is important enough to our community that we’re going to properly fund it so it can properly serve our community.”

Roig said that he would recommend to the HART Board of Directors that they ask the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners or BOCC to enact an ordinance providing for the sales tax, subject to the approval by voters in January to raise the county’s sales tax in order to generate funding for HART. Five of the seven County Commissioners must vote to pass the ordinance, something they have refused to do in the past. A half-cent sales tax increase could raise $110 million dollars per year for HART.

“The nice thing about sales tax is it’s spread out throughout. People that come into our county that don’t necessarily live here but use our services; for instance, people that come in from Pasco, people that come in from other places, and Pinellas, etc, and also tourists that may use the streetcar and things like that, they help pay for the service in our community.”

August and November 2008 are alternative dates that a referendum for the sales tax could be placed on the ballot if the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners gives it the go-ahead, but Roig said that placing it on next January’s ballot would be best because the super homestead exemption referendum will be on that ballot as well.

David Persaud is the Chief Financial Officer for HART. He said that because of the state legislature’s mandate that property tax revenues be reduced, HART’s budget faces cuts of 4.4 million dollars.

“The net result was that we amended the budget by 4.4 million or 7.4 percent.”

Those reductions would come first from vacant non-bargaining employee positions. Seven positions were eliminated resulting in a savings of 660 thousand dollars. by these so-called “Level 1” reductions. Then “Level 2” or operating expenses were reduced by almost two and a half million dollars. That left 1.7 million dollars to be cut from services and routes. Persaud proposed eliminating the positions of 3 Teamsters Union employees and 23 Amalgamated Transit Union, or ATU, employees, for a total of 33 positions cut from HART’s proposed fiscal year 2008 budget.

Vanessa Cephus, Vice President of ATU 1593 thought the board proposed cutting too few management positions at the expense of laying off bus drivers and maintenance workers.

“I’m concerned about all of the people that are non-management. And when they come and ask me, ‘what does this mean?’ I tell them, ‘Well, we was told our jobs are secure.’ Cause how can you eliminate the people who actually do the work. And that’s why I asked them, ‘Why don’t we start at the top for the overlapping jobs to try to save money? Which I will come up with a proposal to show them that you can save money here by cutting out some overlapping positions higher up.”

Hillsborough County spends considerably less per capita than most other Florida counties on transit and about a quarter the Florida average. It spends less than half as much as Detroit, the closest city in size that does not have rapid transit.

Bob Potts is the General Manager of Planning and Development and Public Relations for HART. His staff analyzed the ridership and costs of all routes and presented their recommendations for service cuts. A total of sixteen bus routes were impacted. Three of them were eliminated. In others, there was either an elimination of a segment or the frequency of trips was reduced. But Potts said that only underperforming routes were affected.

“The ridership loss is overall estimated to be 2% and we are reducing the total amount of vehicle hours by 6.5% which would indicate that the cuts we made [targeted] were underperforming and the routes identified for cuts will have the least amount of impact, if cuts have to be made, on the riding public.”

But the ATU’s Vanessa Cephus thinks that Hillsborough’s bus service should be increasing not being cut.

“This is a growing town. I don’t understand the cut in the service. And if there’s any potential of cutting the people that operate the service, I think that’s absolutely ludicrous. This is a growing town, this isn’t a town that needs to be going backwards right now.”

The only rate changes that were proposed involved so-called paratransit fares. They used to cost between two dollars sixty cents and five dollars twenty cents, depending on the complexity of the trip, but now all paratransit fares will be three dollars.

WMNF asked Roig whether the HART Board of Directors has considered challenging the constitutionality of the state legislature imposing limits on HART’s property-tax funding source.

“That’s a very interesting question. If I was a county, I would … ”

HART will hold several informational sessions during the next week – a schedule can be found on the HART website, hartline dot org or by calling 813-254-4278. There will be a public hearing to discuss HART’s service reduction proposals, paratransit fare charge and transit development plan on Thursday July 19 at 4pm on the 26th floor of the County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd. in downtown Tampa. The HART board will vote on the recommendations at their next meeting on August 6.

Learn More:

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit – HARTline, 813-254-4278

HART Board of Directors

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