CLEARWATER — The Jolley Trolley's new chief says her business needs more cash to extend health care and other benefits to employees of the subsidized open-air red buses that trundle passengers to Clearwater Beach, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and north to Tarpon Springs.
But so far, Clearwater's city manager has balked, citing the previous executive director's promise not to ask for a raise in the city subsidy for two years.
The request would amount to an increase of only $9,420 next year, and could be absorbed by the city's parking fund, but there's a principle at stake, wrote City Manager Bill Horne in an email to city officials.
"The bigger issue is how can the (Jolley Trolley) control its costs so that we are not obligated to fund budget increases annually with no end in sight. Our Parking Fund does not exist to fund the (Jolley Trolley)," Horne wrote.
The trolley's board named Rosemary Longenecker executive director in June after her husband, Bob, was asked to step down. She said the bulk of the requested increase is to give about 40 trolley employees a health plan, sick days and paid vacation.
Many of her employees are school bus drivers who moonlight for the Jolley Trolley.
"We don't feel like it's much of an increase at all," Longenecker said.
The city provides a subsidy of about $164,000 for the trolley's beach route. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority matches that and provides money for other routes as well. The Downtown Development Board, an independent taxing authority in Clearwater, gives $9,000 to subsidize the coastal route to Tarpon Springs.
Trolley board chairman Bob Clifford said the company — which last year said it raised about 44 percent of its budget from fares and advertising — is "a hell of a lot more self-sufficient" than most public transit agencies.
Ridership is up and the company is working on a new route through Dunedin, Countryside Mall and Safety Harbor, Clifford said.
"Hopefully, they'll be able to honor our request," Clifford said.
Under the trolley's proposal, the city's $9,420 increase would be broken down this way: $5,870 for the beach route and $3,550 to partially reimburse the Downtown Development Board for the coastal route.
The board will meet today to hear the trolley chief's proposal. The development board has $182,000 in funding requests and about $68,000 to distribute, said Geri Lopez, the city's director of economic development and housing.
Reimbursing the board for additional money for the trolley doesn't sit well with Horne either.
"The other concern we have is the practice of covering DDB funding obligations. That is a practice that I don't encourage us to do," Horne wrote last week to City Council member Bill Jonson, who is an ex-officio member of the Downtown Development Board.
Brad Miller, chief executive officer of the PSTA, supports the trolley's position but isn't wedded to the proposal.
"We're in budget negotiation time right now. It's still up for grabs," he said.
Bob Longenecker said he had given the city a written promise that the Jolley Trolley wouldn't ask for a higher subsidy for the next two years in exchange for the use of city property on N Myrtle Avenue.
He left the business, which he and his wife had saved from severe financial difficulties several years ago, after the board asked him to step down. His departure was at least partially over marital difficulties with his wife. They are now separated, he said.
Rosemary Longenecker declined to comment, saying "that's pretty personal."
She said she would meet with Horne on Friday to discuss the requested increase. She said she didn't want to speculate about what she would do if she didn't get the money.
Jonson said he was waiting for the city staff to sort through the confusion about the promise to keep subsidies steady.
"I don't know if the change in personnel ... if there has been some disconnect in how things were done," he said.
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.