Sunday, May 18, 2014

Shortfall Means Rough Ride For County Bus Service

CCPT Planning Technician James Bosley (center) addresses a public meeting in December 2013 regarding changes with Medicaid client transportation services to medical appointments.

© 2014 Luke T. Bush


Scratch the surface a bit and grumbling is easily heard regarding the Clinton County public bus system.  Complaints about the elimination of routes and stops.  Criticism that the full story remains unreported about what caused the financial shortfall.

James Bosley, Planning Technician for Clinton County Public Transportation (CCPT), faces these negative reactions.  During a public meeting in December he stated that he was trying to operate the best possible system but it was impossible to please everyone.

CCPT serves our area with fixed route buses and also paratransit vehicles for disabled citizens. It depends on the Government, both federal and state, for assistance with its operating funds.

The financial shortfall was covered in the media – Press-Republican newspaper and WPTZ-TV – but not in any great detail.  Critics (yes, everyone is a critic, especially ones who prefer anonymity) contend that the public is unaware of the real reasons for the shortfall.

James Bosley, CCPT Planning Technician, explained his side of the story via email when responding to my questions.

Brief background: New York State funding.  STOA (State Operating Assistance) program sends CCPT funds in five payments, four quarterly payments in one calendar year, and a fifth one in February/March of the following year.  This fifth one is part of a “clean-up” pool that can increase or decline each year.  What’s in the pool is distributed to public transportation systems across the state.

2012: Anticipating a decline in STOA (state) funds CCPT cuts low-ridership routes, reducing costs.  Despite a decline in the three previous years there was a significant increase with the STOA payment anyway. Excess funds rolled over into next year.

2013: Unexpected drop in ridership, about 10% overall, due mainly to fewer residents at Clinton Community College dormitories.  STOA remains steady.  Excess funds rolled into this year from 2012 results in less federal operating assistance.

2014: In February the STOA clean-up payment to CCPT is about $50,000 less than the previous year.  Increases with other service areas in the state means smaller funding pool.  CCPT anticipates STOA clean-up funds will not increase this year, looks for ways to minimize amount of local tax dollars needed.

The Gov giveth, then taketh away.  Trying for the best CCPT cut routes and costs but ended up with an excess in one year because the STOA payment didn’t decline but increased.  The excess meant less federal funding.  Then this year the STOA clean up portion for CCPT was unexpectedly less than anticipated.

As James explains the 2012 STOA increase was "counter-intuitive" to CCPT having just cut back on some routes. He continued: "After $50,000 less in clean-up and an unexpected $13,000 water lateral replacement at the bus facility, CCPT ended up with a budget shortfall of $33,000 for 2013."

But critics contend that’s not the full story.  They question why routes were eliminated while the federal government still provided funding as long as minimum ridership was maintained.

This situation reminds me of the stories I heard back in the day when the Plattsburgh Air Force Base (PAFB) was active. The base would think up “needed projects” to maintain the same federal funding.  If the numbers didn’t stay up then it would receive less.

So there was a project to completely replace perfectly good slate shingle roofing on an old building with inferior new roofing.  A patch job would have been enough.  And then there was the plan to hide those large ugly steam pipes running near the base roads with decorative shrubbery.  If PAFB didn’t dream these projects up, money would be saved but the base would lose funding.

Not an efficient system but that’s how the game was played.

CCPT critics also maintain there was no reason to cut routes and lose federal funding.  The cuts saved money but lost it in the long run.

As for the routes that were left, according to the critics, some popular stops were dropped without good reason.
For example, the bus used to stop at the Hannaford Supermarket exit, an enclosed area that provides shelter from inclement weather.  Now both shoppers and store employees are dropped off near the supermarket but out in the open on a side road.  This stop has to be requested, another inconvenience for riders.  And inconvenience is not what a public bus user wants.

Either way – management’s story or the critics’ POV – saving has meant losing for CCPT.

And James Bosley has a difficult job as he deals with variable funding and trenchant criticism.

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