ALLEN COUNTY — After failing to pass a sales tax levy last November by an 18-point margin, the Allen County Regional Transit Authority is considering trying again in November, depending on the community’s reaction to cuts in service.
“It’s a tough situation,” Executive Director Sheila Haney said. “We’re just trying to ride the wave to see where were at. At some point or another, we’re going to have to ask for help.”
If they do decide to pursue a November sales tax increase in 2018, the RTA has said it would ask for a smaller amount. A new law lowers the minimum amount local governments and transit authority organizations can levy to 0.1 percent on sales, which would raise $1.5 million if passed and help the RTA overcome what Haney calls its “current crisis.”
The RTA’s problems began when a federal five-year grant ended and was not renewed in 2016. The loss drove RTA to ask for more funds to be given through a 0.25 percent sales tax levy this past November, but the levy failed.
In response, the RTA has had to squeeze its services. A number of cuts have already been made to deal with the tightened budget since November. Non-profit organizations no longer have access to free transportation. The monthly discounted unlimited passes that offered lowered prices to students and the elderly have been reduced to a one-size fits-all monthly cost of $40. Saturday bus services have been cut. Bus services after 6:45 p.m. are no longer available. Routes with less ridership, most notably those that transported workers to their factory jobs, have been eliminated. Most likely, more cuts will be necessary in the future, Haney said.
The RTA still pursues both federal and state grants, but competition for them is high, and the number of available grants has decreased making it difficult for the RTA to find the necessary funds. It also currently receives no dedicated tax money, which is a rarity in public transportation, Haney said.
Instead, its operating budget comes largely from revenue — bus fares, vending machines, property leasing, commissions from Greyhound tickets, advertising and gasoline sales — which is then matched by a federal grant through the federal transit authority.
That means if it continues to cut its services, it will continue to lose the amount it gains through revenue and eventually, the RTA would be a shadow of its former self unable to fulfill the transportation needs of those in the community, Haney said.
“We’re a public service. That’s what people forget. We’re not a for-profit. We’re here to service our community,” Haney said.
Some examples, Haney said, include providing cheaper alternate transportation for minimum wage workers, door-to-door shuttling for elderly and disabled, giving rides to nonprofit groups and sometimes offering temporary shelter during emergency situations — such as this past Tuesday when an apartment building in American Township forced tenants to stand out in the cold. During that time, RTA buses stood by to provide a warm place for those evacuated.
“(RTA failing) definitely would affect this community. I have been saying this all this year — that this community is supported like a Jenga puzzle. When you pull that peg away from the bottom of a Jenga puzzle, the whole thing collapses,” Haney said.
“We’re supposed to help our community, but the community is not willing to help us.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.