Discussion continued to the next meeting: For the last six weeks, officers of the region’s transit authority have appeared before the city’s Finance Committee to answer questions about costs and provide ever-more specific data on particular routes, stops, schedules, riders, and cost comparisons among several municipalities.
The council on Sept. 22 voted to slash the transit funding by half, which if not restored will result in gutting midday (10 a.m.-3 p.m.) bus service for regular riders on its three regular routes and also accompanying door-to-door paratransit service for the 150+ disabled and elderly riders. The changes would go into effect Jan. 4.*
The Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority has been hoping the city will reconsider. But except for the protracted discussions and demands for information, committee members have held out little, if any, hope that this will happen.
Quite the opposite. Their rhetoric has become heated and focused relentlessly on the city’s loss in 2012 of a seat on the transit board and BJCTA’s failures to provide the council with information–although it’s not clear what information the council has ever requested. Committee member Britt Thames at the last meeting presented his own plan to eliminate entirely the Homewood portion of BJCTA’s Route 39 through town. The data provided so far, he said tonight, has just confirmed his suspicion that the city is paying high dollar for a service that very few people use.
Instead, the committee’s main interest has turned to finding alternative or supplemental transportation for BJCTA’s 69 “active” paratransit riders who also reside in Homewood. Clastran, the shuttle service whose funding the city also cut this year–from $15,000 to $6,000–may be one option, although it charges riders $4 per ride compared to BJCTA’s $2. Another option is restoring BJCTA funding — and therefore service–to the routes’ 448 riders. The item was carried over to consider the next step.
“Setting the record straight”
Before tonight’s discussion, committee chairman Walter Jones said he asked Mayor Scott McBrayer to join him to “set the record straight” about how the city and transit authority were in such conflict. According to Mr. Jones, BJCTA typically has made its yearly funding request to the committee in March or April before the new budget year. That did not occur this year, or in the past year when the annual figure had risen steeply to $263,000. “There was a lack of communication,” Mr. Jones said.
But was there also a lack of communication within the city? The city’s finance director said she had called the BJCTA in preparing the mayor’s budget earlier this year, and was aware the request was the same as last year’s. That was the amount that went into the mayor’s August budget presentation and the amount the Finance Committee cut in half for the budget the council approved 9-1 on Sept. 22. (Hawkins voting no to this separate item; Hallman sitting out the entire budget vote.)
The next day, according to the mayor, he prepared the necessary changes to the transit contract and personally called BJCTA’s chief, Ann August-Dawson, to give her the heads up. It was through that conversation that Ms. August-Dawson was put on the Finance Committee agenda, to possibly work out a reinstatement, he said.
Ms. August-Dawson, who was new to the job in January 2013, said after the meeting that there had been many conversations between the mayor’s office and BJCTA before the September budget cut. She didn’t understand why the council had chosen to make such deep cuts this year, when the funding request hadn’t increased.
*Despite the council’s budget cuts, Homewood has been receiving full bus since Oct. 1. More severe service reductions may therefore be necessary later in 2015 to make up the difference.