If the proposed Hall County budget released last week is the starting line for reaching a final fiscal year 2013 budget, then the Red Rabbit bus service has some catching up to do if it’s to avoid drastic reductions in the service.
The proposal offered by Hall County staff and released to the public is calculated by cutting costs that would lead to the elimination of two bus routes and layoffs of 13 Hall Area Transit employees, according Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, when asked about reductions this week. The Community Service Center, which is jointly funded by Hall County and the city of Gainesville, runs Hall Area Transit, as well as Meals on Wheels and the Senior Life Center.
“The proposal before the county would cancel out the gains Red Rabbit has made in the last six years,” said Moss, including expansion of a route into Oakwood.
To be clear, Hall County’s proposed budget is by no means final. In fact, there’s a lot still at play in determining the future of Red Rabbit — including input from the city of Gainesville and potential bus fare increases.
Still, the proposed budget indicates that a major downsizing to Red Rabbit is part of the discussion.
Total cuts in the draft budget to the county’s contribution to the Community Service Center budget would amount to a 3 percent reduction from last year’s — or about $15,348.
Those are minor cuts compared to those proposed in other departments. The Hall County Sheriff’s Office is looking at a possible $1.2 million trim, and that’s without layoffs.
Moss, however, explains that once projections of rising fuel costs and the domino effect of reduced government contributions are calculated, big cuts were needed to meet requests.
For next year, the center projects a $67,000, or 40 percent, increase in fuel costs.
Piling on that, if local contributions are reduced to Hall Area Transit, then some matching federal contributions would be reduced as well.
To compensate for those projections, Moss said, the proposed budget anticipates the county will fund Hall Area Transit’s other bus service, Dial-A-Ride, which offers curb-to-curb service throughout Hall County, at the current level of service and that Gainesville would fund Red Rabbit at a reduced level of service.
There has been discussion in recent months about splitting the two bus services between the governments.
That’s something Gainesville City Council members have said they oppose.
But Commissioner Craig Lutz has expressed skepticism about the necessity of requiring Hall County residents to pay for Red Rabbit when they have neither access to nor the need for the service. Red Rabbit buses do not enter the South Hall commissioners’ districts.
The routes that would be cut in this scenario are Route 2 (which travels from Main Street to Lanier Park to White Sulphur Road) and Route 6 (which travels from Gainesville down Atlanta Highway to Gainesville State College).
Moss said there would also be the elimination of one bus operating on Route 5, which would mean less frequent bus pickups.
But county officials say the proposed budget is just that — a draft — and that a reduction in service is not set in stone.
Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell, a supporter of Red Rabbit, calls the proposed cuts “really premature.”
“I think it’s a work in progress,” he said. “We have a budget without a proposed increase in fares.”
On April 25, Hall Area Transit hosted two public meetings on the topic of increasing fares. Those hearings followed Hall County Board of Commissioners and Gainesville City Council support for exploring fare increases to help pay for the service. Fares haven’t been increased for Red Rabbit in more than a decade.
Participants, including a handful of Red Rabbit riders, said they were open to modest fare increases and reductions in service hours to save their bus system.
Commissioner Bell, too, supports passing some costs on to riders.
“I would rather see an option of a fare increase,” Bell said. “I don’t like the idea of cutting first.”
But Moss also warns that balancing a budget through fare increases can be tricky. She points to a phenomenon known as “fare elasticity,” which projects that for every few cents of fare increase, there is also a reduction in ridership.
The other piece to the messy puzzle, of course, is Gainesville.
Staff from the city will present a proposed budget this week to the council. Whereas the county’s proposal presented a 3 percent reduction to the Community Service Center, most city departments were asked to offer budgets that maintained levels from the current fiscal year, said City Manager Kip Padgett.
Still, with the city sharing costs with the county, Gainesville officials likely will be reactionary when deciding on what they will pay toward the center.
“We have to readjust based on what the county is doing,” said Padgett.
Last year, when the county reduced its contributions to the Community Service Center by $120,000, city officials had to evaluate their commitment to certain programs. That led to the end of Counseling and Psychotherapy Service and the Building Better Babies programs.
With less than two months before Hall County’s budget is finalized and with one more public hearing about Red Rabbit fares still on the horizon, there are a lot of details to work through.
“At this point,” said Moss, “I’m in a holding pattern waiting to see the position of the city and county.”