Bus system OKs $11.5 million budget for 2011

by Greg Garland, The Advocate 12/15/2010

The board that oversees the city-parish’s public transit system voted Tuesday to approve an $11.5 million operating budget for 2011 that anticipates, but doesn’t specifically identify, bus fare increases and cutbacks in services.

The Capital Area Transit System’s board voted 5-2, with one abstention, to approve the budget as presented by the administrative staff.

The $11.5 million budget is 13 percent less than this year’s operating budget of $13.2 million and reflects cuts in state and federal funding and declining revenues.

Speaking before the meeting, CATS Chief Executive Officer Brian Marshall said that, “This is one of the worst possible positions to be in” but that the budget must be balanced regardless.

The budget vote came after lengthy debate among board members on whether to hold off on approving the budget until they can decide specifics on fare hikes and service cuts necessary to keep the budget balanced.

Board member Deborah Roe said she wanted to hear a presentation on the rationale behind the numbers in the budget, which includes a $200,000 increase in fare revenues from the $1.7 million collected this year.

Board Chairman Thomas Govan told Roe he had asked that the issues of passing the budget and dealing with proposed fare hikes and service cutbacks be dealt with separately.

He said CATS is mandated by law to pass a budget by Jan. 1, but can take up specifics on any increases and fares and cuts in services at a public hearing at the board’s next meeting, on Jan. 4.

“It’s safe to suppose there will be some combination of both,” Govan said.

But board member Isaiah Marshall said he didn’t favor handling the budget in that fashion.

“I’m not comfortable with the process we’re taking,” he said.

Board member Dalton Honore responded: “All we’re trying to do is start the year with a budget. We just need something to officially start the year with.”

He said the staff had to start somewhere in creating a balanced budget, and noted that the earliest any fare hikes or service cuts would take effect would be Feb. 1.

Board members voting in favor of approving the budget as presented were Govan, Honore, Marla Williams, Jared Loftus and Bryan Jones. Those voting no were Roe and Isaiah Marshall. Board member Donna Collins-Lewis abstained.

CATS staff has surveyed transit users to try to determine the least-objectionable combination of fare increases and cuts in services to address a $1.2 million deficit in the 2011 budget.

CATS went to voters Oct. 2 with a 3.5 mill property tax that would have nearly doubled its budget. It was rejected by a vote of 53 percent opposed to 47 percent in favor.

A consulting study has suggested that CATS needs more than four times its current operations and maintenance budget to run a premium bus system that would best serve the community’s public transporting needs.