Council to Metro: If you just found $8M, why would you increase bus fares?

Council to Metro: If you just found $8M, why would you increase bus fares?
Posted at 5:57 PM, Feb 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-13 18:02:57-05

CINCINNATI -- More mixed feelings surrounded Metro's future during Tuesday's City Council committee meeting, when council members heard hopes for a better bus system but also asked tough questions about transit authority management.

Mere hours before presenting their vision for the future of Cincinnati Metro bus service, Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority trustees learned of $7.9 million in Metro funds that were sitting idle and unallocated. SORTA Chief Financial Officer David Riposo and his team discovered the additional funds a year-long review of projects that came in under budget or were discontinued.

SORTA CEO and General Manager Dwight Ferrell said Riposo was hired specifically to look at the transit agency's balance sheets.

"We really did have a problem keeping on the balance sheets," Riposo told council's Education, Innovation and Growth Committee. "We didn't have the right talent to dive into this."

The news concerned several council members, including Amy Murray, who chaired the former transportation committee during council's previous term, and has been working closely with the transit authority and its bus service for the past four years.

"I'm shocked that this sort of mismanagement has occurred," Murray said. "I don't have confidence right now in the financial system that SORTA is using."

Council member Chris Seelbach, who serves as the committee's vice chair, also voiced concern: "This is highly concerning, and it's why people don't trust government," he said.

The unallocated money disturbed council member Tamaya Dennard because the news comes in the midst of an in-progress campaign to boost funding for Metro, which includes increasing fare rates.

"It's alarming that you all found the money but still plan to ask for a fare increase," she told Riposo during Tuesday's meeting. 

Dennard and fellow council member Greg Landsman both voiced their opposition to fare increases Tuesday.

Fare revenue makes up about 20 percent of Metro's operating budget, with roughly half of that budget coming from a small share of the city's earnings tax.

With or without a proposed sales tax increase, Metro's looming budget deficit means that, in order to maintain current service levels, the transit agency will have to raise fares, decrease service or both. Every sales tax levy option SORTA has proposed included incremental fare increases.

Metro cannot increase bus fare without approval from City Council, according to the transit authority's charter. SORTA is in the process of requesting a 15-cent fare increase for 2018, which Riposo said would yield an additional $1 million for Metro.

The multi-million dollar discovery cast a cloud over SORTA officials' presentation, in which they outlined where they hope Metro service will go over the next decade, including new crosstown routes, increased frequency of service, and prolonged time spans of service.

These enhancements -- which also include establishing dedicated, bus-only traffic lanes on certain routes and amenities like onboard WiFi and power outlets for charging mobile devices -- would require voters approving in November a .9-percent sales tax levy.

SORTA's board of trustees yet has not recommended a sales tax levy rate to present to voters. Options range from .5 percent to 1 percent.

"We're not here recommending a specific amount. We're just showing what's possible," new SORTA board chairman Kreg Keesee said.

Without a new, permanent funding source, Metro is facing a $180 million cumulative budget shortfall over the next decade.