Originally published October 2, 2012 at 08:44a.m., updated October 2, 2012 at 10:23p.m.
Steamboat Springs When Steamboat Springs City Council member Kenny Reisman asked his 9-year-old daughter what she thought about the city's proposal to cut the Yellow Line, she replied that the loss of the free bus route would leave a lot of people trapped.
The girl's worry was echoed Tuesday afternoon by college students, senior citizens and other community members who packed Centennial Hall to tell Reisman and other council members they depend on the free bus service for their livelihoods.
And after all of the public outcry and the council's hard look at the efficiency of Steamboat's free bus service, Reisman and his fellow council members decided they couldn't stomach a $350,000 cut to Steamboat Springs Transit next year.
“If we cut that line, we're hitting people and we're hitting them hard in a place we need some support,” Reisman said before he voted with five other council members to forego the cuts to the bus service and save the Yellow Line.
In the final hour of its six-hour budget retreat Tuesday, the Steamboat Springs City Council voted 6-1 to increase the revenue projection for next year to avoid $350,000 in cuts to the city's free bus service.
The cuts being proposed by city officials to balance the 2013 budget would have ended the Yellow Line service as well as eliminated nine full-time driving positions and dramatically cut back evening summer bus service, among other reductions.
Council members said the service reduction would be detrimental to the community, but no one on the dais thinks the bus route's current operation is ideal. They agreed the city needs to find a more efficient way to run the Yellow Line, which is Steamboat's least utilized route and costs dramatically more per passenger to operate than other routes.
Earlier in the budget meeting, council members mulled a variety of ways to make the route more efficient, from introducing a fee, to making the Yellow Line on-call only, to using a smaller vehicle on the route or soliciting a private company to take it over.
The council instructed Steamboat Springs Transit Operations Manager Jonathan Flint to report back to them by Jan. 1 with a list of alternative options for the line.
Cari Hermacinski voted against raising the revenue projection next year to avoid the transportation cuts. Although she also voiced concerns about the reduction to the free bus service, she said she wanted the city to identify a more efficient alternative than the current service well before the New Year.
Closing the gap
The proposed cuts to free bus service stemmed from a $600,000 budget shortfall that was created when the city added four major items to its 2013 budget, including $192,717 worth of pay raises for firefighters and paramedics, a $283,511 cost-of-living adjustment for city employees, $163,732 worth of deferred maintenance projects and a transfer of $176,437 from the general fund to capital projects.
To close the gap, the city proposed cutting transit service along with reducing the city manager's contingency fund and economic development budget and replacing two vacant firefighting positions with fire prevention officers at a lower rate of pay.
It was the proposed cuts to transit that easily attracted the most public attention during Tuesday's budget retreat that started at 8 a.m.
As public comment neared at 3:15 p.m., Centennial Hall went from being nearly empty to a gathering place of Colorado Mountain College students and Hilltop and Old Town residents who told the council they depend on the service to get to work, attend class and run errands.
The vote to save the free bus service was brought to the forefront by council members who said the city could safely budget to receive more sales tax revenues next year to avoid service reductions.
At an August meeting, council directed the city to start its 2013 budget flat to the city’s 2012 budget. The 2012 budget is about 7 percent below the actual revenue the city has received to date.
But from the start of this budget season, council members disagreed on how conservatively they should project revenues in response to an uncertain economy.
Citing the city's estimated revenue surplus of $1.3 million this year, and several recent years of intentionally budgeting to receive less sales tax revenue than actually comes in, council agreed Tuesday night to budget a little less conservatively for 2013 to avoid service cuts.
“Fiscally conservative I am, but fiscally damaging I am not,” council member Kevin Kaminski said before he proposed the city increase its revenue projections by $485,000 next year to avoid cuts to transit and possibly give additional funding to other city departments. “We shouldn't be strangling the city to hurt the product.”
Sonja Macys asked the council whether the “juice was worth the squeeze” and advocated for finding a way to resume the Yellow Line.
Council eventually settled on the vote to avoid the cuts to transit.
Several council members also said they would entertain adding more dollars to the budget to give more funding to such entities as the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association and to city departments.
And at the same time they considered things to increase spending on, council members ended up saving $288,600 in the capital reserve fund by cutting several items. The savings came from forgoing two proposed studies and delaying the resurfacing of clay courts at the Tennis Center at Steamboat Springs by a year.
The council will consider approving a first reading of the 2013 budget at its Oct. 30 meeting.
Other highlights from Tuesday's budget retreat:
The value of studies
City Council added $220,000 back to the city's capital reserve fund by nixing two proposed studies.
Studies quickly became a discussion item during the retreat when council members questioned whether the Public Works Department needed one of the studies, a $150,000 item labeled a Transportation Master Plan.
City staff said that study would have examined all of Steamboat's major intersections so developers would have an idea of what improvements they would need to make to them when building near them.
Council members thought the study was unnecessary in part because many of Steamboat's intersections have been examined for potential development in recent years.
“If we're going to fund a study, the reasons for it needs to be bulletproof,” Council Member Kenny Reisman said.
Council members also passed on a proposed $70,000 study on Howelsen Hill to explore ways it could generate more revenue.
Several council members, including Macys and Kamniski, expressed concern about the city's recent trend of having employees absorb more job responsibilities in response to budget cuts. Kaminski specifically mentioned the Howelsen Ice Arena as a facility employees are now doing more to maintain while also seeing their budget slashed.
He said the cuts are “starting to hurt the product.”
“The people we have working there are taking pride in what they do,” he said. “We're cutting them down and they still want their product to be high quality.”
When discussing the city's scheduled $332,000 debt payment on the Iron Horse Inn, Finance Director Kim Weber told the council the motel currently is projected to bring in 15 percent less than the $400,000 in revenue the city budgeted to receive from its operation this year.
Hermacinski then asked why, if the motel is continuing to lose money, the facility isn't moth-balled. Hermacinski is an advocate of a plan to tear down the motel and replace it with a police station.
Reisman then pondered if it could be turned into something like a business center at a much lower cost. The new police station is estimated to cost $7 million.
Deputy City Manager Deb Hinsvark put cold water on both of those proposals when she informed the council they wouldn't be acceptable to the motel's debt-holders.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com