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THE Bus budget debate ends in limbo

BROOKSVILLE — Some issues in government simply have no easy solutions. In Hernando County, the poster child for that reality is the public transit system known as THE Bus.

Members of the Hernando County Budget and Finance Committee on Tuesday hotly debated the future of THE Bus but were unable to get a majority to agree what to recommend to county commissioners.

That means that the County Commission will be on its own when it takes up the issue April 28 to decide whether to cut service to reduce costs, and whether to accept five new buses paid for with federal stimulus dollars and the 10-year commitment that acceptance could mean.

Bus ridership is not at the level of other similar-sized transit systems, and a vocal segment of the community wants to see THE Bus parked permanently. But the system is also staunchly supported by local residents who have no other transportation option.

On Tuesday, the budget committee was charged with listening to a detailed report on the county's transit system and making recommendations to the County Commission on how the plan might be changed to save money and how to deal with the aging fleet of buses.

Committee members considered a motion to cut bus service in half by having buses run every two hours rather than every hour, which would reduce expenses by $420,000, $142,000 of that local funds.

But when the members learned that most of the bus fleet was already past its prime, there were questions about how to even provide that reduced level of service.

Hernando County is eligible for five new buses as part of the federal stimulus package, but the county would have to commit to using those buses throughout their normal lifespan, which could be 10 years.

"I can't see taking five vehicles just because they're free,'' said committee member Anna Liisa Covell, who also balked at the other alternative, which was to rehab buses, once again committing to seven more years of THE Bus. But she could not find the support to simply end bus service altogether.

Committee members talked about ways to try to attract riders, such as running buses to major employers, running buses into subdivisions and seeking private partners to help pay the costs.

Adding more services will run up the cost to the county, warned Ron Pianta, the county's planning director.

Beyond the cost factor, Brooksville's vice mayor, Lara Bradburn, urged the committee to consider how gutting the county's bus service would affect Hernando's ability to participate in and get funding for regional transportation projects.

"The message is so very clear that without a viable transit system including THE Bus, we will not be included'' in many of the aspects of the regional system, Bradburn said. "We cannot afford to lose our 'in' to regional planning.''

Committee chairwoman Rose Rocco agreed.

"It is a very important factor for our growth and development,'' she said.

Ultimately, the only transit vote on which the committee could get a unanimous response was to forward the minutes of the discussion to the county commission without a recommendation on how to proceed.

In other business, the committee votes to recommend to the commission that in-house county staff be used to design and build a new courtroom on the third floor of the county government building, in an area now used as a jury assembly room.

The move would set the cost of the project above the previously budgeted staff cost at an estimated $140,000 and it would take a year. Farming the job out to an outside design and construction crew could cost $622,000 and take 20 months.

The move generated some questions about why the county staff would be available to do the work at a time when private construction crews have been idled by the slow economy and could use a job.

County Attorney Garth Coller said the county could allow a job that size to be done in-house if it were approved by the County Commission and seen as a beneficial choice to taxpayers.

The committee also voted to recommend to the commission to approve an expansion in the county's Animal Services facility at the cost of about $300,000. The expansion would allow the county's code enforcement office to move to Animal Services.

Committee members also got their first look at some of the other county services that could see cuts as Hernando officials try to find $10 million worth of spending cuts in next year's budget to make up for revenue shortfalls.

Several committee members expressed concern about discussions to possibly hand library management over to a private company, but the staff made no presentations on that issue Tuesday. Committee member John Scharch expressed concern about the idea from research he had done indicating that such a move would hurt long-time library employees.

Committee members also discussed cutting lime rock roads out of the general fund budget.

Deputy county administrator Larry Jennings told them they would have more time to discuss those issues and general topics, such as a new policy on budget reserves, whether to increase fees or taxes and whether to offer any pay raises to employees, at their next meeting May 5.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

THE Bus budget debate ends in limbo 04/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 9:15pm]
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