Iowa City City Council supports SEATS program


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After the Johnson County Board of Supervisors expressed a need to discontinue funding for a program that provides rides to the elderly and county residents with disabilities, Iowa City officials maintain that the service will continue, though some aspects may be cut.

But some SEATS riders don’t want to see the service changed at all.

“If SEATS is privatized, it’s no good for the disabled,” said Mary Gravitt, an Iowa City resident and occasional SEATS rider. “Everyone has an interest in keeping SEATS in the public. We all get old, and if we don’t get old, we die. We have to have some way to get around this city.”

In operation since the 1970s, SEATS provides door-to-door rides to individuals with disabilities, senior citizens, and other people in need of assistance accessing medical clinics, grocery stores, and other destinations.

“We’re going to make sure that service continues; we don’t want [SEATS riders] to feel trapped in a debate between two government agencies,” City Councilor Jim Throgmorton said.

Johnson County has proposed cutting the general levy funding for SEATS, which would place much of the cost burden on Iowa City. The council plans to have a discussion with the Johnson County Board of Supervisors on how to proceed with funding for the program.

The final proposal from the county involved providing $100,000 in funding for the program in the first year of its new contract, $50,000 in the second year, and cutting all funding from the third year onward.

In fiscal 2012, Johnson County provided $461,319.17 in funding for SEATS to Iowa City, the majority of which came from county taxes paid by Iowa City residents.

Both the city of Iowa City and Coralville are mandated by the Federal Transit Administration to provide para-transit services for residents in need.

The standard cost for a one-way ride is $2 for any rural, Iowa City, or University Heights one-way trips and $1.50 for Coralville and North Liberty trips. Iowa City residents who take rides that originate in Iowa City have a reduced fare of $1.

At the City Council’s work session Tuesday evening, Iowa City Director of Transportation Chris O’Brien recommended the council proceed with several options to reduce costs for the para-transit program, including a pay-as-you-go model that would bill the city for the service by month, cutting the Sunday service for the program, and eliminating the half-fare option for riders.

Approximately 90 percent of SEATS riders qualified for half-fare rides at a cost of $1. City staff has estimated eliminating the half-fare would save $120,000.

However, that proposal faced some opposition from community members.

“I’m concerned about the half-fares being eliminated,” said Harry Olmstead, an Iowa City resident and SEATS rider. “If 90 percent of riders are at or below the poverty level, many of them are on fixed budgets, and asking them to provide more is impossible.”

The City Council did pass a resolution Tuesday that would allow those who could not be reached by para-transit services to get rides to locations not typically covered and provides additional assistance.

“If someone needs to go to the doctor, that’s what this type of program does,” O’Brien said. “It’s door-through-door service.”

Others who spoke at the meeting were relieved that SEATS was not in danger, though they urged the City Council to resolve the funding issue.

Casey Hayse, an Iowa City resident who said she had been using SEATS for 17 years, wanted to preserve the program the way it is currently.

“I use SEATS for everything; it’s my main form of transportation,” she said. “SEATS is part of what makes Iowa City a wonderful place to live.”

Hayse sees SEATS as a service that enriches the community as a whole. She presented a petition in support of SEATS with more than 1,600 signatures to the City Council.

“Diversity is an important issue, and we [elderly and disabled people] are part of that diversity,” she said. “We are not problems to be solved.”

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