Steamboat Springs City Council votes to save Yellow Line

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— 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.

Debating conservative

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.

Job absorption

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.”

Iron Horse

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

Comments

Steve Lewis 1 year, 11 months ago

Thanks Council for the hard work.

I agree with keeping the yellow line. But Cari is right, the bus system needs efficiencies explored. I like Ken Brenner's letter in the packet along the same line of reasoning: Organize the condo shuttles to work together.

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Fred Duckels 1 year, 11 months ago

I always observe busses to see how many are riding and it seems a very inefficient situation. I think that it will take someone removed from the operation to think outside the box. Too many have a dog in the fight. Those making the Iron Horse deal semed to have the intent that the idea never be revocable. Logic seemed to be a casualty here.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 11 months ago

"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"

This just shows how badly screwed up is the City's budgeting process. It is absolutely ludicrous that next year's projected revenues is a political decision made by the city council.

Revenue projections should be best guess made by experts which locally would appear to be the Routt County Finance Dept which has a long history of accurately predicting revenues.

It is not conservative budgeting for city council to pick a revenue projection less than best estimate of revenue projections. It is simply knowingly making an inaccurate decision. A more conservative budget should be accepting accurate revenues projections and then simply set aside some revenues to build reserves instead of spending all revenues.

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Fred Duckels 1 year, 11 months ago

George, Our bus system by your observation is out of our hands because we have chosen the path that provides us with a windfall. I am told how social security is so beneficial, but there might be many ways to skin the cat and I'm not so sure. The present system surely eliminates the private sector that could operate without government competition and not be a burden on the taxpayers. That is why ideas must come from outside as seldom is anyone willing to vote against their pocketbook.

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rhys jones 1 year, 10 months ago

Am I a troll, if I hijack a month-old and dead thread for my own devious purposes? So be it, as this is my only forum. But as I watched another EMPTY Yellow line go by just now, I thought There's GOT to be a better way, which rekindled old thoughts, originally inspired in Telluride, by their Gondola. It seems that, by making it go over the hump from downtown and into Mountain Village on the other side, they could call it Public Transportation, thus getting the Feds to kick in heavily to defray costs. It doesn't cost anything to get ON the gondola, but you need a lift ticket to get off at the top. Anybody can ride it from one end to the other.

That got the ol' wheels turning... I imagined a similar thing, for us here, linking the town and mountain... it could be a high-speed detachable gondola, with optional side-outs at the various stops... nobody desiring the detour, and nobody waiting at the stop, it could be bypassed, in the name of expediency. Of course I can imagine the pitfalls, people hogging cars, full cars passing waiting people... and I'm sure the programmers of the brain would have fun with the challenges. Nevertheless, I think it could be done fairly efficiently, and with a minimum of oversight. Effectively slashing public transportation costs, once it's built. We could take what Telluride started, and run with it.

Think of the short-term employment, just building the thing. I worked for Doppelmayr on the Silver Bullet; my cigarette butts are enshrined under every tower from 6 to the top, and I'd be happy to do it again!!

And that'll be my contribution for the moment; now back to the real world.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 10 months ago

Buses are efficient as long as they have riders. Instead of creating a whole new set of special purpose infrastructure, they reuse the roads.

Buses become less efficient when stuck in traffic which is when light rail and other traffic bypassing options become worthwhile. SB does not have the traffic congestion to justify not relying upon buses.

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