City, Johnson County officials meet in first public discussion to plan SEATS future


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City officials joined members of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors in person for the first time this year to discuss the future funding allocations of SEATS.

Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty met publicly Wednesday afternoon at the Coralville City Hall to devise a plan to keep the comprehensive para-transit service alive, in light of recent budget constraints.

“It wasn’t that long ago that what the county paid for para-transit was $60,000,” Supervisor Janelle Rettig said at Wednesday’s meeting. “The county has absorbed every nickel of it in the last five years. I do not have $305,000 to pay your bills.”

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. During the most recent fiscal year, SEATS had an operating budget of $2.3 million, an increase of approximately $900,000 from just six years ago.

Rettig said she believes a number of contributing factors including an explosion in the residential and commercial markets over the past few years, an increase in overweight riders, and, most recently, a Monday afternoon fire at the Johnson County Secondary Roads Building has crippled the county’s budget. SEATS Director Tom Brase noted that some of the current buses are equipped with passenger lifts that can handle a maximum weight of 800 pounds.

Citing rising costs and budget limitations, the supervisors have called for an end in subsidy funding for the program serving the area’s two largest cities. In a March 1 letter addressed to the supervisors from area mayors, they requested that the county continue funding the approximately 40-year-old SEATS program but cut the amount by 50 percent.

The city officials hope for $305,000 in county subsidies during a five-year period.

Roughly $225,000 would support Iowa City riders, while the remaining funds would be directed into Coralville and North Liberty ridership.

After accusing Mayor Matt Hayek of not being properly educated on SEATS operations and for creating a public-relations stunt out of current situations, Rettig addressed all city officials present and their suggestions to dip into county reserve funding.

“After this week, you can talk about how we can enter our reserves all you want, but our reserves went away already,” she said.

Operating costs and inflation have risen over the last five years, as ridership numbers have increased 20 percent and the cost of fuel has increased 60 percent.

City officials remained confident that some version of the program will continue despite a looming June 30 contract expiration. Local municipalities are mandated by federal law under the American Disabilities Act of 1990 to provide some form of para-transit service.

To date, the program operates 23 buses, 10 of which are owned by Iowa City. Coralville owns three buses, and the East Central Iowa Council of Governments owns 10. An additional bus is anticipated to join the Iowa City fleet in the near future. 

Emphasizing the need to establish parameters in moving forward with discussions, Hayek said cost-cutting measures including the removal of Sunday rides and the conversion to curbside, rather than door-to-door service should be examined. He almost immediately shot down Supervisor Terrence Neuzil’s suggestion for using area TIF dollars to fund SEATS.

“We’re here to talk about a SEATS contract,” he said. “I understand that other issues have some relevance, but where you see some savings, at least for us, is on the labor side. At least for Iowa City, we view in-house as a way to find savings. There was no magic to our number.”

SEATS rider and University of Iowa Program Coordinator for the Center for Disabilities and Development Terry Cunningham said he remains optimistic that agreements will be reached in the near future.

The nine-year Iowa City SEATS rider said although he relies on both SEATS and the UI Bionic Bus to get to and from work, home and area destinations, there are a number of other area residents who have greater dependency.

“I think it worries me any time stuff gets cut because that then means no matter how nice and accessible the community is, how integrated programs are and whether there’s nice, safe affordable housing, if you don’t have a way to get to any of that stuff, then essentially, you’re living in a small institution,” he said. “There’s just way too much going on in Coralville, Iowa City, and North Liberty to miss out on that stuff, much less have the choice to be able to do things on the schedule you want. I couldn’t have gotten to this meeting without SEATS.”

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