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Editorial: Form long-term solution for SEATS

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 28, 2013 5:00 AM

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City officials from Iowa City, Coralville, and the surrounding area met with Johnson County Supervisors Janelle Rettig and Terrance Neuzil Wednesday in Coralville to discuss the funding shortfall threatening SEATS, a local program that provides door-to-door transportation for disabled people, senior citizens, and others in need of assistance.

Concerns about the program’s future arose after the Johnson County Board of Supervisors told the cities of Iowa City and Coralville in September 2012 that the county’s subsidy for SEATS would be dramatically reduced in fiscal 2014. Indeed, in the county’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, the SEATS funding to Iowa City will be reduced by approximately $360,000. Coralville’s funding will fall by more than $100,000.

The supervisors plan to put up $130,000 for the SEATS program in Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty in fiscal 2014. In a March 1 letter to the county, the mayors of the three cities requested that the county rethink its decision to reduce funding for SEATS. The city leaders have requested $305,000 in funds to split among themselves. Currently, there is no long-term funding plan in place for SEATS.

Some of the funding problems surrounding SEATS come from rising costs; fuel costs and ridership have both increased over the last five years. The SEATS fleet features 23 buses, 10 of which are owned by the city of Iowa City.

Given that costs are rising and funds are relatively scarce, the fact of the matter is the financial burden of funding SEATS is going to have to be shared among Johnson County and its constituent cities. We implore the parties to work together to form a long-term funding mechanism for SEATS that will keep the program intact and on more certain financial footing in the future.

Iowa City and the surrounding area are legally obligated to maintain a program such as SEATS. Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, communities are legally obligated to provide door-to-door “para-transit” for disabled individuals in areas where fixed-route public transit exists.

But the current SEATS program goes beyond the minimum standards established by federal law. SEATS serves all Johnson County residents, including those who live in rural areas away from fixed-route transit. Additionally, senior citizens are eligible alongside the disabled to receive rides from SEATS.

In fiscal 2012, SEATS provided more than 124,000 rides in Johnson County. So far in fiscal 2013, the average number of rides per month is up by almost 700 over last year. It would be a shame to let such a program fall into a state of disrepair thanks to poorly managed funding cuts.

Funding battles over public services such as SEATS inevitably lead some to argue in favor of privatization. Issuing transportation vouchers to the disabled, this argument goes, would allow private transportation services to provide para-transit more efficiently than the local government.

But there is some question about whether it would be cost-effective for a private transportation company to take on such a role. The costs associated with a program such as SEATS are naturally quite high, and the number of potential customers is really quite low.

SEATS provides Johnson County’s disabled persons and senior citizens with an invaluable resource, door-to-door transportation. Officials from Johnson County and the cities of Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty must come up with a plan to maintain funding for SEATS in the coming years, lest the county lose a valuable public service.


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