Johnson County officials say some SEATS services may need to be cut

BY NICK HASSETT | APRIL 16, 2013 5:00 AM

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With the funding sources for the countywide para-transit service SEATS still unclear, officials said tight budgets might force cuts to some aspects of the program.

The Johnson County Task Force on Aging hosted a public forum and panel session on Monday at the Coralville Public Library, with representatives from parties involved in SEATS at the panel.

Bob Welsh, the head of the Johnson County Task Force on Aging, said the service would remain, but the budget for the service may affect how it operates.

“SEATS is here to stay,” he said. “The concern has been finances and whether those will dictate the levels of service.”

Welsh said that existing services currently exceed the requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires public-transit systems that provide a fixed-route bus and rail service also provide a para-transit service for those with disabilities.

Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig said the Board of Supervisors will vote today on a proposed $200,000 contribution to the SEATS program.

“The budget has gotten a little out of balance in what the county paid,” she said. “We can live with [a $200,000 contribution].”

In fiscal 2012, Johnson County provided $257,657 in funding from the general levy for para-transit services.

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.

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said some cuts might be necessary for SEATS.

“We understand where we are, and we’ve made it clear that certain cuts likely have to occur for the program to remain solvent,” he said. “The most obvious ones are [eliminating] the half-fare and Sunday service.”

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.  Approximately 90 percent of SEATS riders meet the income qualifications for half fares, which cost $1 for a one-way ride.

City staff previously estimated eliminating the half-fare would lower operational costs by $120,000, while eliminating the 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday service would save $68,000.

Welsh provided a budget projection for the program, including the amounts from approved city and county budgets as well as projections of savings. Welsh estimates an additional $41,606 in funds will still be required for the service to continue functioning as it does currently.

And while Welsh believes the cities would be able to come up with that amount without cutting SEATS services, he hopes they take more than just finances into account.

“Personally, I hope the city and county decisions are made not just on fiscal matters but on quality-of-life issues,” he said.

It was a sentiment echoed by those in attendance at the forum, as many were SEATS riders themselves.

Iowa City resident and SEATS rider Harry Olmstead said the half-fares were vital for low-income SEATS riders.

“The half-fares are for people living at or below the poverty level,” he said. “Making SEATS cost $4 round trip [for the normal fare] … if it was your budget you’d understand it has quite an impact.”

Marybeth Gardam, a representative from the group Iowa Move To Amend, said Iowa gave too much to corporations instead of services for residents.

“In the bigger picture, we’re nickel and diming human services,” she said. “We should put the money where real Iowans need it.”

Gardam hoped her message to the county and cities would be especially clear with the deadline for IRS tax filing looming.

“This is tax day, we all pay taxes,” she said. “And we expect ours to go to friends and neighbors we know need these services.”

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