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Transit merger discussed

Published 9:15pm Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dowagiac’s Dial-A-Ride (DART) advisory committee was joined earlier this month at City Hall by Transit Coordinator Rozanne Scherr and Dennis Schuh, Cass County Transportation Authority manager, to discuss countywide transit millage.
City residents pay .55 mill for DART, so a countywide levy would reduce Dowagiac taxes. County residents pay no millage to support bus transportation.
Under Gov. Rick Snyder’s economic vitality incentive program, governmental entities are required to review duplicate services for cooperative opportunities.
According to the Jan. 4 minutes, combining the two public transportation services and removing boundary requirements could bolster services countywide.
The committee “thought it was an interesting idea and suggested” Scherr and Schuh “start discussions as to how to make this work.”
“We continue to run at a deficit despite our best efforts,” Scherr updated Dowagiac City Council Jan. 23. “This is a very conservative ($263,076) budget we’re bringing forward, but at some point in time — and I think it’s going to be sooner rather than later — the continued deficit needs to be addressed, either through raising the millage here in Dowagiac or going for a countywide millage. We can’t reduce staff anymore, so if we can’t get this under control we’ll have to look at service cutbacks. I don’t want to do that because 53 percent of our ridership is elderly or disabled people. It’s a very valuable service.”
Auditor Ken Berthiaume mentioned DART in his presentation: “It continues to be a problem. Expenditures over revenues are pretty much a continuing trend because state and federal revenue has gone down. More fares is not enough to offset those decreases.”
Staffing includes a full-time dispatcher and relief driver, a full-time driver and two part-time drivers. Ridership increased 5 percent last year.
Mayor Donald Lyons, who chairs the Cass County Transportation Authority, said, “We’re facing exactly the same issues. For years, we were able to run positive operations. The past five years, we started with a little gap that is worsening. We’re one of only about three counties in the state that doesn’t have a supporting millage. We’ve been able to do an awful lot with not much, but the time is at hand. You won’t see it tomorrow or maybe even this year, but there will come a time when hard decisions have to be made. On the positive side, we’re all aware of it, we understand it and we’re working cooperatively to have those conversations, so I’m confident good will come out of it and we’ll be able to do a better job of serving the clientele. Right now, I think both of our systems are operating on a bit of a shoestring. The upshot is we’re not serving our clients as well as we could or should.”
Council signaled the city’s intent to apply for funding and approved the 2013 DART budget in accordance with the Michigan Department of Transportation master contract.
The DART advisory committee recommended $263,076 with a state share of $85,595 (36.24 percent) and federal share of $80,492 (16 percent).
Previous year percentages were state 37.12 percent and federal 16 percent on a $207,688 budget.
The local share is $96,989. Fares are expected to contribute $27,000.
“This year’s budget is significantly higher due to a $60,000 capital purchase request” to replace a 2008 bus, according to City Manager Kevin Anderson.
“While all of our DART buses are 2008 models subject to five-year replacement schedules, only one is in poor condition and warrants replacement.”

Audit filed
Berthiaume said his Sept. 30, 2011, “snapshot” shows the city “holding its own in maintaining net assets” despite seeing an 8-percent dip in property tax revenue from $2.051 million to $1.889 million.
State-shared revenue also declined about 8 percent, from $657,000 to $592,000.
“The challenge is to maintain services with less revenue, and the city has really managed to do that,” he said. “You reduced the cost of general government from $1.108 million to $775,000. Public safety represents the biggest portion of governmental activities expenses. The general fund ended the year with a balance of $813,000, or 24 percent. More than 20 percent is recommended, so you’re toward the bottom end.”
Refinancing 2000 water and sewer disposal revenue bonds saved $124,000.
Berthiaume said the pension plan is 55 percent funded, down from 56 percent.
The accountant told First Ward Councilman Randy Gross, “You’re probably on the low end at 55. I see 60 percent to 80 percent” in other municipalities.
Unfunded liability for health insurance promised retirees amounts to $800,000.

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