Metro could use up to half its financial reserves to cover 2019 budget gap

Posted at 5:00 AM, Nov 19, 2018

CINCINNATI -- The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority will have to dip into its limited funding reserve in order to maintain current levels of bus service through 2019.

During its monthly meeting last week, SORTA's board of trustees approved a $99.9 million operating budget for Cincinnati Metro service next year. With revenue projected at just $96.1 million, that leaves a $3.8 million gap to fill.

SORTA administrators also revised Metro's projected operating and capital budget deficit for the next decade to $160.5 million. It had been projected at $184 million.

Closing out the 2018 budget cycle, Cincinnati Metro has roughly $6 million in reserves. In order to balance the 2019 budget -- which Ohio law requires -- the organization will need to take roughly $3 million from that reserve. An additional $1 million left over from 2018's budget will cover the rest of the gap.

SORTA Board Chair Kreg Keesee called the move a "short-term solution."

"We are working hard to maintain service for our riders," he said in a news release Tuesday. "We do, however, recognize that using reserves to balance the 2019 budget is like dipping into your savings account to pay monthly bills.

"Our funding model is broken, and we must find a way to become financially sustainable in order to provide the transit system the region deserves."

By dipping into the reserve fund, Metro can -- for now -- avoid fare increases and staff reductions, said CFO David Riposo.

For years, transit trustees have kicked around the idea of proposing a new sales tax levy in Hamilton County in order to provide a new, permanent source of funding for Metro. The board most recently decided not to present voters with that option during this fall's midterm election cycle.

The board's next opportunity to ask voters for a new source of funding will be during Ohio's primary election in May 2019. State law allows the SORTA board to put a measure on the ballot without collecting signatures. The deadline to file for a May ballot measure is Feb. 6.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.