Gainesville officials felt “blindsided” by Hall County’s handling of funding for the Red Rabbit bus service, Mayor Danny Dunagan said Thursday.
The Hall County Board of Commissioners decided Wednesday night not to pursue $400,000 in grant funding to help keep the shared transit service operating after July 1, despite an earlier commitment to buy seven buses.
Dunagan, who addressed the matter at the end of a City Council work session Thursday, said he believed the county should have discussed the matter with the city before the vote “and see if something couldn’t be worked out.”
“I think (the county’s action) was the wrong way to approach it, and I didn’t appreciate it, nor did the council,” Dunagan said.
The two governments operate and help fund Hall Area Transit, which operates a countywide curbside van service, Dial-A-Ride, and Red Rabbit buses that circulate on fixed routes primarily in and around Gainesville.
Hall Area Transit measures ridership according to trips, which have risen to 240,190 in fiscal 2012-13 from 12,000 in 2001-02, when the service began.
Commissioners Craig Lutz, Billy Powell and Scott Gibbs opposed the Federal Transit Administration operations grant. Chairman Richard Mecum and Commissioner Jeff Stowe were in favor.
The commission did direct Marty Nix, assistant county administrator, to set up meetings with Gainesville to discuss future operations.
Dunagan said he talked with Mecum on Thursday morning about setting up a meeting.
“We’re going to sit down and try to work out what can be done,” he said.
At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners seemed particularly concerned about liability issues.
“The problem I’m having is, of course, we own all the rolling stock and 100 percent of the liability,” Lutz said. “My concern going forward is we’re putting all the citizens of the county at (a) tremendous amount of risk.”
Gibbs added: “The problem is that bus drivers are city of Gainesville employees — they don’t work for the county, but we have the liability.”
In supporting the grant, Mecum said, “At least we keep our citizens ... and employees moving and leave the discussions (about Red Rabbit’s future) to the politicians.”
Dunagan said he believes the city-county arrangement over the bus service “has been going on for close to 15 years ... and it’s worked just fine.”
Looking toward future talks, Dunagan said, “Gainesville-Hall County is a progressive community and in order to be (that), you have to have some kind of transit system.”
For his part, Lutz said he believes it’s time for the Red Rabbit “to be the city of Gainesville’s and some other entity.”
Community Service Director Phillippa Lewis Moss, whose department oversees Hall Area Transit, left the commission meeting without commenting.
On Thursday, she said in an email that she hopes city and county elected officials “will give latitude to the Gainesville city manager and Hall County administrator to sit down with staff to work out a solution to the issue of where the transit service will be housed and how it will be funded.”