City Manager Mike Matthes’ proposal to increase transit fares ruffled some feathers in the disabled community at Monday night’s regular City Council meeting.
In his recommendations for the city’s fiscal year 2018 budget, Matthes suggested that the council increase para-transit fares from $2 to $3 per ride to earn revenue for a transit system that has struggled to pull its weight in recent years. The increase in fares would generate an additional $50,000 per year for the city.
Para-transit services are used by residents with disabilities, who often rely on the rides to move around town.
Mark Farnen, a representative of senior adults living at Bethel Ridge Estates and Gentry Estates in Columbia, said increasing the price of para-transit services would hurt disabled residents, many of whom rely on social services to pay for basic needs. Farnen said he wants to see the fare increase eliminated from the budget proposal.
Cheryl Price, a member of the Public Transit Advisory Commission, said the increase in transportation costs would put disabled residents in a challenging spot financially. Price, who uses a motorized wheelchair, said many disabled Columbians already have to make difficult decisions about other costs of living, including housing, utilities and food.
Matthes also recommended that the city eliminate several bus routes with low ridership. He said eliminating routes 6, 7 and 8 would cut the city’s transit spending by an estimated $575,000.
As Matthes presented his full recommendations for the city’s upcoming budget Monday night, he said Columbia struggles with a “revenue problem.” The issue stems from lost sales tax revenue due to a precipitous drop in student population, and the rise of online retailers like Amazon and eBay.
“Continued historically low sales tax growth is creating a severe revenue problem,” Matthes said. “All the indicators I watch point to a very dark year for traditional retail and a bright year for online retail.”
The costs for employee benefits, including health care and pensions, have also risen, Matthes said.
To make up for lost revenue, Matthes said the city must make small financial sacrifices across the board. In an effort to cut spending, the city will postpone all vehicle replacements for a year, implement a temporary hiring delay and lower the budgets of the IT, building maintenance and community relations departments by 10 percent.
As Columbia continues to grapple with an understaffed police department, Matthes recommended that the city continue its efforts to “civilianize” the department. If approved, the plan would put four trained law enforcement officers currently in clerical positions back on the street and replace them with civilians.
In all, Matthes said he expects the city to earn more than $433 million in revenue next fiscal year against more than $455 million in spending. The $22 million deficit in the budget will be supplemented by reserve funds that have been accumulated over previous fiscal years.
Council will hear the public’s comment regarding the proposed budget at its next two council meetings. A final vote on the budget will come in September.
Supervising editor is Taylor Blatchford.