April 23--SANTA CRUZ -- Metro's board of directors unanimously passed a budget strategy Friday that combines service cuts with a fare increase and a bit of reserves to set the countywide transit agency on better footing next year.
The Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District board approved a list of public hearings next month to take suggestions from riders about a 12 percent reduction in routes, which is far fewer than an initial proposal to cut service by nearly a third. The 12 percent cut still slashes service throughout the county by eliminating routes, reducing trips on others and cutting back on weekend service, though paratransit service for disabled riders will not be affected.
Fixed-route bus drivers are waiting to see how deep layoffs might go. The cuts preliminarily approved Friday are expected to cost 18 full-time positions, which represent between 10-15 percent of fixed-route drivers.
A service cut of 10 percent last year was absorbed through retirements and attrition, but Bonnie Morr, leader of the union representing fixed-route drivers, said some job losses will be unavoidable this time around.
"I would like to say I view this as a sigh of relief," she said. "It's better than what we were looking at, with a 30 percent reduction. But I think the board could have done better with reserves."
The plan approved by the board draws down reserves $1.5 million and cuts service by $1.4 million to reduce a $3.8 million deficit expected to
accumulate by July 2012. The balance would come from $500,000 in new revenue generated by a 50-cent fare increase for all routes except the Highway 17 Express, as well as funds saved by freezing wages.
Angela Aitken, Metro's finance chief, expects the route cuts and fare increase to $2 per ride will be staggered to reduce the toll on riders. If finalized by the board in June, the route reductions will go into effect in September, but a date hasn't been set for the fare hike, the first since 2003.
Aitken said she was relieved the board dealt with next year's deficit Friday so staff can begin tackling more than $4 million in red ink for 2013. Even as state transportation funding is up in the air while Sacramento tries to close its own massive shortfall, employee health care and pension costs are expected to rise.
"It's better they take steps now rather than a year from now when we are in dire straits," she said of the board.
Metro will ask all employee groups to forgo a cost-of-living increase next year to keep costs down. Fixed-route and paratransit drivers have already agreed.
"I understand they are trying to prepare for next year's budget when we don't know what the financial situation will be like," Morr said.
Santa Cruz Councilwoman Lynn Robinson, a Metro board member, said the plan endorsed Friday is "palatable right now." But she said, "There is no cut here that is a pleasant experience for everyone."
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