City of Cincinnati says it has enough to cover Metro bus budget gap

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati should have enough money in reserves to cover a multimillion-dollar deficit for the region's largest bus system.

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority asked the city Tuesday for $3 million, warning of higher fares and lower service without the extra money.

City Manager Harry Black is splitting that request in half, saying SORTA could ask for $1.5 million in the city's upcoming budget and $1.5 million in next year's budget. City Council still has to sign off on the request.

Black said he's dividing SORTA's request because of the different accounting methods at the city and transit agency: Cincinnati is on a fiscal year budget, running July to June, while SORTA is on a calendar year budget, running January to December.

So, the first $1.5 million would cover SORTA's gap from January to June 2018, and the second $1.5 million would cover the shortfall from July to December 2018.

Cincinnati provides about half of SORTA's budget from a 0.3 percent city earnings tax dedicated for transit use.

There's more than enough to cover the gap, Black said -- about $2.7 million above what's needed in one reserve fund, and another $5 million in another fund. But Black said he expected SORTA to detail what it was doing to minimize the impact on reserves and develop a more sustainable funding plan that doesn't rely on one-time revenue sources.

Metro CEO Dwight Ferrell also warned that SORTA's current funding model isn't sustainable, and that budget gaps will get larger. The agency has considered asking Hamilton County voters to pay as much as an extra percent in sales tax to help pay for operations, but it's unclear when -- or if -- that ask might go on the ballot.

SORTA's budget shortfall is distinct from Cincinnati's streetcar, which is funded separately.

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