Sometime in late 2013, with the budget already put to bed, the city’s finance director discovered that $274,000 was automatically swept out of the city’s property tax collections to pay its transit bill that year. Except that the bill was $48,000 more than the previous year, the automatic payment process was routine.
The increase was absorbed in a flurry of budget amendments that year, but this budget year the amount was billed at $263,000– an inexplicable $11,000 difference.
“This is where it started. Our concern started here,” said Finance Committee chairman Walter Jones, explaining the steps and unanswered questions that led the committee in September to recommend–and the council to pass–a 50% cut in funding and transit service. Three members of the Finance Committee, the council president and Ward 1 councilman Michael Hallman gathered at a special called committee meeting this afternoon to get to the bottom of the city’s dispute with the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority and its method for setting routes and charging for services. At the other end of the table were transit staff and board authorities, including CEO Ann August-Dawson and newly named board chair Patrick Sellers.
Sellers replaces former chair Johnnie Lassiter, who was unseated in a corresponding special transit board meeting concerning the problems with Homewood.
When the meeting ended, Mr. Jones indicated funding would be maintained at the “full” level as long as talks continue and his intention to recommend restoring full funding at the conclusion of those talks. BJCTA’s paratransit services for elderly and special needs riders will therefore be unchanged.
Transit planner Henry Ikwut-Ukwa, meanwhile, will meet with Homewood’s planning staff next week to analyze ridership patterns and needs and possibly propose new or changed route systems for more efficiency. (He has said the political roundtable wasn’t the best environment for plotting system changes, which committee members have been suggesting.) He also suggested a Lakeshore bus route, and Ms. August-Dawson explained that Samford University has approached BJCTA about special transportation for students living off campus in Homewood.
In the main discussion–dissecting the complex process established for billing and collecting for bus service–both parties seemed baffled by the FY2014 increase and why there wasn’t better communication between the city and transit agency at that time. Ms. August-Dawson said the charges each year are based on service hours in the city, which for Homewood was 3,520 hours of fixed route service. The initial jump in charges may have had something to do with each city’s share of capital increases for new buses–she was hired in January 2013, after those decisions were made. However, neither she nor the transit finance director could explain why the Jefferson County tax collector drafted $274,000 from Homewood’s taxes one year and $263,000 the next, since cities are charged based on contracted hours and at a defined rate, not on a percentage of tax collections.
Mr. Jones, the city attorney, and others from the transit side plan to meet soon with Jefferson County Tax Collector John Smallwood to find out exactly what happened. The city has already taken steps to pay its future transit bills directly rather than from automatic tax drafts.
The meeting dispersed on better terms than in past meetings, which have been ongoing since the council slashed funding in September–although supplemental funding was approved to extend service through Jan. 31.
Council president Bruce Limbaugh said the protracted proceedings had drawn the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which sent an observer to the last Finance Committee meeting earlier this week.