NY: Clinton County Bus System Facing Budget Shortfall

The Clinton County Public Transportation system will again experience a funding shortfall this year, but legislators aren't cutting the system.

"This body needs to decide if we feel this is an essential enough service to continue to provide, and to pay for this shortfall with a budget item," Legislature Chairman Harry McManus (D-Area 1, Champlain), who chairs the Transportation Committee, told legislators recently.

RIDERS, REVENUE DOWN

McManus said the bus system is projected to have a budget shortfall of about $115,000 at the end of this year.

That comes on the heels of a $33,000 loss for 2013, which legislators learned about in April.

The 2013 deficit was the first time in about a decade that the system did not meet budget projections.

County Deputy Administrator Rodney Brown said the main reason both years appears to be a drop in ridership.

The system logged 210,000 passengers in 2012, but about 30,000 fewer riders took the bus last year.

Projections for this year foresee about 165,000 to 170,000 riders, which is another drop.

MEDICAID CHANGE

One reason for the lower numbers is that the state, which orders para-transit trips for Medicaid riders, uses other transportation providers more than they used to, Brown explained.

Last year, the state hired a private firm to handle Medicaid trips instead of local Social Services departments, and that company is using other providers besides county bus systems.

Brown said the shift has affected public transportation systems across the state.

CCPT also lost riders from Clinton Community College because fewer students lived in the dormitories at PARC.

CLEANUP CASH

Another problem comes in the form of less state "cleanup" money at the end of the year.

The state has a pot of about $10 million that it divides among the two dozen rural transportation systems across the state.

Usually, money is left over, and that is divided among the counties at the end of the year.

Brown said the cleanup check at the end of the year was usually enough to cover any budget shortfalls; but last year, it didn't.

"It depends a lot on what happens with other systems, and you never know what your cleanup check will be," Brown said.

Two new bus systems were added in the state last year, which took up more of the leftover money, meaning less for Clinton County.

FARE HIKE DEBATED

McManus said 1,500 to 2,000 people rely on CCPT on a daily basis.

Around 80 percent of those riders use the bus to obtain essential services, such as medical, legal and employment appointments and food and clothes shopping.

He said the Transportation Committee looked at numerous ways to solve the budget shortfall, but none seem viable.

Raising fares would likely lead to a drop in ridership, and thus, revenue, he said.

McManus said the last time the county raised the rates, in 2004, ridership fell by about 5 percent.

"If you raise it even a little, that could add up for a lot of people," McManus said.

EMPTY BUS

Cutting routes would lead to a drop in state and federal reimbursements for traveling fewer miles with fewer riders.

"We actually make money when we send a bus around Cumberland Head with no one on it because of the way the state reimburses us for mileage traveled," Brown said.

"It seems kind of foolish, but we make money even though there is no one on the bus, and we have to pay for gas."

Legislator Mark Dame (R-Area 8, City and Town of Plattsburgh), who chairs the county's Finance Committee, said the reimbursement system from the state needs fixing.

"This is ludicrous to be sending buses around with no one on them. That's the kind of thing that drives taxpayers nuts."

Dame said he favors a small increase in fares to offset the shortfall.

"I don't believe that a slight fare increase will drop ridership," he said. "If ridership dropped last time we raised the rates, there must have been some other contributing factors that we are not aware of."

'NOT CLOSING DOOR'

McManus said the county will monitor the system in hopes that the dropoff in ridership eases and the state cleanup-money situation settles down.

He said the county most likely will fund the shortfall from the general fund.

"We are not closing the door on anything, but I think we will get a better read on it next February when the state sends the next cleanup check, and then we can have a better baseline to work from," McManus said.

Legislator John Gallagher (D-Area 9, City of Plattsburgh) is not in favor of cutting the bus system.

"I agree that it is an essential service, and we should do more to sell it and promote it," he said.

Email Joe LoTemplio:jlotemplio@pressrepublican.comTwitter: @jlotemplio

BUS SYSTEM FACTS

About the Clinton County Public Transportation bus system:

  • 16 buses comprise the fleet, operated by First Transit through a contract with the county.
  • Transportation hub is located on Arizona Avenue on former Plattsburgh Air Force Base.
  • Budget is $1.3 million per year, with the state contributing about 50 percent; the federal government, about 12 percent; and the rest from local revenue.
  • The federal government pays the county 40.5 cents per passenger.
  • The state provides 69 cents for each mile the buses travel.
  • Local revenue comes mostly from passenger fares:

$1 one way for every run within the City of Plattsburgh,

$2 for each rural run and $3.50 for para-transit trips for people with disabilities.

The revenue is bolstered by selling advertisements on the sides and back of the buses.

  • The county has contracts with Clinton Community College and SUNY Plattsburgh for transporting students. Both schools recently agreed to a 10-percent increase in their yearly payments to the county. CCC will now pay $33,000; and SUNY Plattsburgh, $30,800.

Copyright 2014 - The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.

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