For people who ride buses in Colorado Springs, the City Council budget season is shaping up to be deja vu, all over again.
Recall last year, when transit riders overflowed City Council chambers to complain that proposed cuts to bus routes would do more than save the city a little cash. They would devastate the poor and disabled in the community. Make it impossible for them to get to the grocery store, or work, or their child's day care.
City Council listened last year. But this year could be different.
At the Aug. 25 informal City Council meeting, city manager Penny Culbreth-Graft told Council that the city is facing a $23.3 million shortfall in 2009, and she asked for guidance on what to cut. She noted that sales tax collections are lousy (and aren't expected to turn rosy next year), while expenses continue to increase.
Take transit, for instance. Driving those buses around town is costing a lot more these days, mostly due to high gas prices. And, according to Vice Mayor Larry Small, paying bus drivers will cost the city over a million dollars more in 2009, due to pay scale demands from transit's labor union (Amalgamated Transit Union Local 19).
Which gave Small an idea. Why not cut bus services to cover the cost of the labor dispute? Then, when the hordes of bus riders show up yelling and crying, Council can direct them to union headquarters.
"I'm not going to be the one to explain to the public why the labor union needs that money at their expense," Small said.
Shucking the blame, however, may prove difficult, if only because the issue is so confusing.
Small says he was basing his comments on a projection in the city manager's budget presentation that transit costs would increase $1.8 million (or, he now says, around $1.4 million) due to union negotiations.
Culbreth-Graft has said she is expecting increased costs to the city due to bus driver raises.
But Public Works director Ron Mitchell and city Mountain Metropolitan Transit director Sherre Ritenour say they've heard nothing about bus driver salaries increasing $1.8 (or $1.4) million next year.
"I'm just as confused as you are," the vacationing Ritenour said Tuesday.
Ditto for Mitchell, who said, "I'm not familiar with what [Small] is talking about."
Here's the thing: Mitchell says transit workers are paid by a contractor, which is in turn paid by the city at a flat rate for a number of years. If bus driver salaries increase, the blow should be to the contractor's pocketbook, not the city budget.
It is possible that city leaders were confused. Maybe that extra $1.8 million has nothing to do with extra compensation for bus drivers. Mitchell notes that the city is dishing out cash to continue its lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor. The city is suing the feds because federal law governs its treatment of the transit union, and the city feels it's being held to too high a standard. (Of course, that's not the bus drivers' fault.)
One would hope city leaders will clarify the issue before they begin ripping the heart out of the transit budget.
In the meantime, Ritenour says, she's basically preparing for that to happen. See, Council also directed the city manager to consider slashing most public works spending, including the transit budget, back down to 2004 levels the bare minimum the city committed to paying out of the general fund each year when it signed on to the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority.
That, alone, would slash transit general fund spending by $6.1 million or more than 50 percent from 2008 budgeted levels. But, at Small's suggestion, transit funding could be trimmed by an additional million dollars or more; it's unclear what the consequences would be if that dropped the city below the PPRTA minimum.
Transit union representatives say they won't shoulder the blame for lost bus routes in 2009. Jeanna Lanucha, vice president of the union, says bus drivers aren't at fault, and counters that transit spends a lot of money on administration and the controversial FrontRange Express bus. (Some City Council members hate the FREX route to Denver because they say the Springs is paying to ship its sales tax revenue out of town.)
Lanucha says Small ought to find somewhere else to point his finger.
"It's typical!" she says. "They'd like to find a scapegoat."
The bottom line for riders, at this point: Council consensus doesn't mean that Culbreth-Graft will automatically write all those cuts into her proposed 2009 budget. But she could. And since Council wasn't receptive to many of Culbreth-Graft's revenue-producing and expenditure-slashing proposals, a pre-approved target could prove tempting.
The city manager while not saying what she'll do does seem conscious of the many challenges transit will face, like pricey gas. Transit may also receive less funding from the PPRTA, which, after all, is funded by lagging sales tax.
And penny-pinching residents looking toward the bus for financial salvation aren't likely to dig the transit system out of this mess.
"The demand is increasing slightly," Culbreth-Graft says, "but it's not bringing with it the revenues."