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RFTA quandary: Cut jobs or bus service

ASPEN, Colorado ” The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s board of directors pondered Thursday whether to cut bus service or jobs if the economy continues to tank.

For now it can dodge the tough decision. The RFTA staff pared enough from the budget to offset plummeting sales tax revenues. The agency has deferred capital projects, and saved money on fuel and overtime from budgeted amounts.

In addition, the board members at a retreat Thursday gave the staff a green light to dip into the agency’s $3.5 million cash reserve if needed.



However, the board members also said they will decide on further cuts if sales tax collections throughout the Roaring Fork Valley continue to fall at a double-digit clip like they did in December and January.

RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship outlined a proposal to reduce bus service in the early morning and after 9 p.m. starting in the summer, if further cuts are necessary. The proposal would preserve the bulk of service at prime commuting times and through mid-day.



“Let’s have less service, but the service we have, let’s have it be high quality,” Blankenship said, describing the philosophy.

Board members were unanimous in not wanting to act too quickly to reduce service. They don’t want cuts implemented for summer service.

“During times of economic hardship, buses are probably going to be used more,” said board member John Hoffman of Carbondale .

Board member Ed Cortez, also of Carbondale, said it is impossible to know how the economy will evolve over the next six months. It’s appropriate to use RFTA’s reserve fund now if needed, but at least prepare for greater cuts, he said.

Board member John Wilkinson of Snowmass Village agreed: “The reason we have reserves is for a rainy day. Well, it’s pouring out there right now.”

But board member Jacque Whitsitt of Basalt said her household strategy is to cut expenses to try to “hang onto savings” in these tough economic times. She said RFTA should go that direction.

Whitsitt wants RFTA to consider employee furloughs one day per month, wage freezes and possibly even elimination of jobs.

“I think it’s realistic ” every company in the world is losing employees,” she said.

RFTA employs about 260 workers at peak wintertime. That falls by 40 to 50 employees during offseasons.

Blankenship said employees weren’t given cost of living raises this year, but the budget approved by the board allowed for merit raises of up to 4 percent. Some employee reviews have already been completed and raises granted. It would be unfair to tell other employees that they wouldn’t be eligible for those merit raises this year, he said.

Whitsitt countered that employees might be willing to give up raises if it means everybody keeps their job. Whitsitt said she “hates to be devil woman” but wants to look elsewhere before considering any bus service cuts.

After about one hour of debate on how to cut the budget, the most vital information on the topic was finally unveiled. John Tangen, director of finance, said the agency isn’t close to dipping into reserves at this point. After he quickly put pen to paper at the retreat, he determined the $2.1 million in budget cuts already made ” which don’t affect bus service ” will offset a 20 percent loss in sales tax revenues for an entire year. Even if sales tax collections drop by 30 or 40 percent, RFTA is several months away from needing reserves, he said.

Tangen’s news was welcomed by the board members and it took the urgency out of the budget cut discussion. It was unclear why such an analysis wasn’t included in the initial presentation to the board.

scondon@aspentimes.com

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is in the odd position of planning for a significant expansion in 2010 and 2011 at the same time it is contemplating cuts in existing service.

RFTA is working on an expansion proposal called Bus Rapid Transit, which will add frequency of buses and amenities like nicer stations, additional parking lots and high-tech features for riders. It is closing in on $25 million in funding from the federal government, and local voters in November approved a sales tax increase and $44.55 million in bonding authority.

Despite those big plans for the future, RFTA’s current situation isn’t as rosy. Sales tax revenues are plummeting in its member jurisdictions in the Roaring Fork Valley. The agency has pared $2.1 million off its budget and is considering possible cuts to bus service.

RFTA is reserving the new sales tax revenues for exclusive use for the expanded BRT system. In other words, it won’t use the sales tax hike approved in November to shore up its finances during the economic downturn.

RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said that will be a difficult position to explain to riders if current bus service is cut.

“Then the argument becomes, ‘I’d rather have my bus today than BRT two years from now,” Blankenship said.

It will be a “PR exercise” to educate riders on the situation, he said.

” Scott Condon


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