July 16--FORT WALTON BEACH -- Okaloosa County will keep its public buses running for one more year while searching for new funding sources.
Commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to use $260,000 in tax dollars to fully fund the transit system's budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
The board agreed to the reprieve after hearing from new leadership at Okaloosa County Transit, the nonprofit that runs the bus system, and from local city officials, who have proposed creating a city-county transit cooperative.
"When I came here, frankly, I had mixed emotions," Commission Chairman Kelly Windes said. "... But I see a new ray of hope in here. Partly because of the new leadership. I see a lot more want-to than I have in the past."
Under the proposed cooperative, the county and local municipalities would jointly determine the transit system's routes and funding. They also would form partnerships with local businesses that benefit from public transit to contribute financially.
The transit system could take on a different structure, using shuttles and reconfigured routes.
Dozens of citizens -- both bus riders and local business owners -- crowded into the board chambers to hear the discussion and make comments.
Bob Berkstresser, OCT's new program manager, told the board that better marketing of the routes, technology upgrades on buses and local advertising on buses would help bring the system back into the black.
"We've got nowhere to go but up," he said.
Berkstresser also warned the board that any savings realized by shutting down the fixed routes would be offset by those same riders flooding into the county's door-to-door paratransit program.
The majority of citizens who spoke during the public hearing pleaded with commissioners not to shut down the transit system, saying they depend on it to get to jobs and medical appointments.
"A public transportation system is vital," said Martha Bayer of Mary Esther, whose son suffered a traumatic brain injury years ago and depends on OCT to get around.
"We are not moving cargo. ... We are moving people. We are moving people who have very few options, very few resources."
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Kari C. Barlow at 850-315-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KariBnwfdn.
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