Preliminary HART budget would raise ad valorem, cut routes listen06/06/11 Kate Bradshaw
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:
Falling revenue may mean more cuts for Hillsborough County bus services. Today the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s Board of Directors approved a preliminary budget that would ax fifteen stops, and drastically reduce service in some areas. Philip Hale, the agency’s interim CEO, said drawing on reserves has prevented such cuts in the past, but that’s not an option anymore.
"For the last three years we have been, in essence, balancing the budget, adding additional service, but drawing off our reserve. And, quite honestly, what has been occurring is we've been kicking the can down the road."
The budget was initially slated to draw $2 million from reserves in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, but that would prevent HART from meeting the requirement that it hang on to the equivalent three months’ worth of operating dollars in its reserves. The adjusted budget uses $700,000 for each of those years. That’s not the only place where the agency is seeing an unexpected drop in revenue. Katharine Egan, Chief of Service Development at HART, said every single percentage point in fluctuation of housing values impacts the agency by $282,000. For an agency so heavily dependent on property tax revenue, another drop in housing values is expected to pack a punch.
"What we have presented to you is based on a 3 percent reduction in housing values. Previously the board directed us to make sure we're talking to the county appraisers very closely. We talked to them last Thursday. We're not anticipating a 3 percent reduction. We're anticipating a 4.8 percent reduction which is another $540,000."
The proposed budget would raise the agency’s millage rate from 0.468 mils to half a mil. Even with the slight increase, the owner of an average-priced home would pay less than 47 dollars per year. Egan said there are other risky budget factors. She said every quarter a gallon of diesel fuel fluctuates in cost has an impact of $500,000, and that state and federal fund amounts are unpredictable.
The agency plans on making up some of the lost revenue by cutting service for the third time this year, and the fifth time in the past two years. Changes, if adopted, would go into effect in November. They include moving to hourly service on weekends in Town & Country. Egan said the new schedule would reduce what she called “revenue miles” by 8 percent, but it could have been worse.
"We're very glad that we only have 15 stops proposed for elimination. What this means is if I have a bus route it will run less frequently, it might not run as late at night. But either it will be there or another route will be there."
Egan admitted that changes like eliminating service on Sundays for some routes will probably be tough on some riders.
"For the person trying to go to St. Joe's North they now have a 3 mile walk to get to work on Sunday. We help them out on weekdays through Saturday by getting closer. That's an observation of one place where we're impacting some passengers."
Board member Mark Sharpe said HART’s bus fleet is already anemic, and asked interim CEO Philip Hale to compare the number of buses it has to the number it needs.
"The problem that we have, and Mr. Hale brought this out when we met a week or so ago was over a thousand square miles of territory and I asked him, 'how many busses would it take to help move our population at our size in one of the largest areas in the nation?' He's like, 650 busses. How many operating busses will we have in fiscal year '11 or '12 approximately? 179. And you really need 650 to make it work."
During public comment, Tampa resident Pierre Mathurin said if voters had approved a sales tax increase to fund transit last November, the agency wouldn’t be seeing such deficiency.
"The passage of last year's sales tax referendum would have enabled HART to avoid making cut after cuts in needed transit service. More voters would have supported the sales tax if they had know that a yes vote would have saved the existing transit service."
Although voters overturned a measure that would have meant fortification of the bus fleet, road and trail improvements, and, eventually, rail, bus ridership in Hillsborough has gone up 18 percent this year. A HART spokesperson said in April alone, Sunday ridership has gone up 37.5%. But Karen Jaroche, a staunch opponent of November’s ballot proposal, said such a boost in ridership doesn’t make the agency flush with cash.
"I'm not so sure that this board gets the financial information that is necessary at each board meeting. Some of the key performance statistics talk about ridership but they don't really go into the cost."
Speaking to the penny-pinching sentiment that has come to dominate government agencies, the board also voted to ax funds covering travel expenses for board chair Alison Hewitt to attend a transit conference in Jersey City. Board member Mike Suarez was in the minority.
"These things are important, especially from the board chair's perspective trying to help give us direction on some of the other things that other transit boards are doing across the country. And, to be honest with you, we're sending you to New Jersey so it's not like you're going to have that much fun in the summertime."
The board approved the preliminary operating budget, which now has to go to member jurisdictions and faces public hearing in September. Board member Sandy Murman said she wanted to see HART’s tax levy stay the same as last year’s levels, which can still happen before the budget approval. With new millage increase, service changes would include eliminating South Tampa service east of Dale Mabry