TX: VIA Avoids Chopping Block in Shavano Park

Feb. 14--An outpouring of support for public transportation services in Shavano Park helped keep those services off a possible chopping block as Shavano Park City Council finalized plans for the city's May 10 elections.

The City Council on Jan. 27 voted to put two propositions on the May 10 ballot: one asking whether to continue the city's crime control and prevention district and its one-fourth-of-1-percent sales tax for five more years; and the other proposing a new one-fourth-of-1-percent sales tax dedicated to street maintenance.

If both are approved, that would be a half-cent per $1 spent in the city on taxable goods.

But City Council decided not to include a referendum on VIA Metropolitan Transit operations and the one-half-of-1-percent sales tax that supports those services in the city.

That tax generated almost $408,000 last year for VIA, City Manager Bill Hill said.

Questions had been raised about whether the city was getting its money's worth given ridership totals for the city's one bus route and for the use of VIATrans, an appointment-based transportation service for disabled customers.

VIA recorded 728 bus trips in Shavano Park involving 9,938 riders in 2013, the city said.

In addition, Shavano Park had 10 registered VIATrans customers last year who used the paratransit service 1,753 times.

Hill said the agency's data indicated Shavano Park had contributed about $41,000 more last year than its transport services cost, though there have been periods in the past when sales tax revenues fell short of the cost of services.

Mayor David Marne was among those who had questioned the costs and benefits involving VIA services.

But impassioned testimony from several VIA customers at a Jan. 21 workshop and additional information from the transit agency apparently convinced council that the service needed to be preserved.

"It really did not come down to ridership," said Marne, a recently appointed VIA board member. "It came down to doing the right thing for the citizens."

The city manager said many of the people who testified at the workshop were VIATrans customers who had no transportation options outside of VIA.

John Butchkosky, a Shavano Park resident, VIA customer and one of seven people who testified at the workshop, said he was pleased with the council's decision. He said even for those like him with a car, having bus service as an option is necessary.

"It's an important service in its own right," Butchkosky said.

Charlie Gonzalez, VIA's senior vice president for public engagement, said while he understands the tough financial situations cities face, he was gratified that Shavano Park found that VIA's services fill a need and believed the parties had opened a line of communication that should be beneficial.

While the sales tax for VIA was not affected by the council's action, the two propositions on the ballot, if approved, would change how sales taxes are spent but not how much of the tax is charged in the city.

The crime control and prevention district had been funded by a sales tax of half of 1 percent until the council, acting in its separate capacity as the crime prevention district board, voted to reduce that tax to one quarter of 1 percent earlier in January.

With that decision, Shavano Park had the flexibility to ask voters whether they want to use the other one quarter of 1 percent for street repairs.

Marne said he'll urge voters to support both propositions.

The reduction in the tax cap for the crime prevention district won't hamper its capabilities, and the money generated for road repairs, while not addressing all those needs, will make a valuable contribution, the mayor said.

"They are both good ideas," Marne said.

wpack@express-news.net

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