Population is increasing; unemployment is rising. Road maintenance costs are climbing; money available to repair or build new roads is dropping. And gas prices are expected to hit a new high this summer.
Combined, that convergence of trends might indicate this would be a good time for Hernando County to maintain or expand its public transportation system, as counties and cities to the south are doing. Instead, the County Commission is considering cutting its already limited bus service to save a relatively small amount of money.
Although the statewide property tax restructuring known as Amendment 1 has created an inescapable need to make deep cuts in government spending, the commission should resist the urge to take its first stab with the budget knife at an increasingly essential component of the county's transportation infrastructure. THE Bus, the county's only publicly funded transit system, is being used now more than ever before, and the commissioners should stay focused on the long term as they weigh their options.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins has worked responsibly for several months with transportation planners to delineate those options. They are scheduled to be presented to the board Tuesday. They range from savings of $55,000 to $380,000. The most talked-about option is to eliminate one day of the current Monday-to-Friday operation. Combined with proposed savings from the county taking over maintenance of the buses from a contractor, cutting service to four days a week would save about $200,000. The other options the commission will discuss include reducing the number of hours per day that buses run, or reducing the hours and cutting one day of service.
The proposal to take over fleet maintenance for a savings of $55,000 is a no-brainer and should have been done last year as the commission pruned its budget. Of the remaining three cost-cutting measures, the one with the least impact on people who rely on THE Bus is cutting one day of service. Scaling back the daily hours of operation could affect a commuter every day. But if one day is cut and the hours on other days remain the same, at least that person could still depend on the transportation four days a week.
Still, any cut to the transit system will signal a collective cost-cutting attitude by the commission as its members face similar choices in the months to come. A decision to reduce public transit is an indication that the commissioners are comfortable balancing the budget on the backs of people who rely most on fundamental government services.
Like raising fees at parks, closing down libraries, or diverting money from other practical programs, it is easier than making more difficult decisions about shrinking the personnel payroll, or opposing shrill critics whose financial status is more fortunate.
Almost 70 percent of the funding for THE Bus comes from federal and state grants that, if Hernando County did not receive them, would be awarded to other municipalities. Of the $1.8-million annual expense to operate THE Bus, only $690,000 comes from the county's general revenue fund. That's an indisputable bargain.
The county's transportation planners have done a great job administering this transit service, from securing funding to listening and reacting confidently to residents' concerns and wishes. The commission should be very wary of undercutting that momentum to the point that it cannot rebound, especially knowing that the need will only increase.