BROOKSVILLE — Even with a season of budget cutting looming, the County Commission on Tuesday was not ready to put the brakes on THE Bus.
Saying they want to make cuts that won't hurt those who most need public transportation, commissioners voted unanimously to take over the maintenance of the service from the transit operator. That would mean the county would be fully reimbursed by the federal government rather than at the current 50 percent rate, a savings of an estimated $55,000.
A suggestion to park THE Bus one day a week, supported by Commissioner Jeff Stabins as a way to trim costs but save the service, generated discussion but not a decision.
Instead, commissioners said they wanted to hear the details of a bus ridership survey the county plans in April. That survey could tell commissioners the primary reasons people take the fixed-stop bus service and how many might be forced to seek out more expensive door-to-door county transport if THE Bus cuts back or eliminates services.
The county's public transportation system got blasted during last year's budget talks and some citizens continue to urge the county to close down the service because it does not get enough use.
"To continue this farce is ridiculous,'' Janey Baldwin said Tuesday.
Spring Hill resident Jon Knudson had a different view. He said he rode the bus several times lately and found it to not be as empty as some people have said. "To cut back the bus is going to hurt people,'' he said.
Still others called for more, not less, bus service.
The county's transportation planning coordinator, Dennis Dix, described the complex funding of the system including federal, state and local sources. THE Bus was started to replace expensive and inefficient door-to-door services provided in the past, he said.
As county staffers have explored ways to save money on the service, they concluded cutting one day a week would be the least intrusive. Cutting the number of hours each day would mean the service wouldn't work for commuters, Dix explained. Cutting routes would require state and federal approvals and would make it difficult to get to many places since the routes now is "bare bones,'' Dix said. Using smaller vans would also not save money .
Dix also said that eliminating THE Bus altogether would not save the county money. The county would then have to fund the more expensive door-to-door transit service with local dollars, which would cost $400,000. Capital costs, now paid for by federal dollars, would become the county's responsibility. That could mean another $500,000 a year to run smaller vans and buy new equipment.
In a perfect world, Stabins said, the county could fill the buses all the time and expand services. But cuts are needed. Dropping a day and taking on the maintenance would save the county an estimated $200,000.
"That's saving about a third'' of what the county puts into the system, Stabins said. "The $200,000 is a good chunk of change.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.