By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
More people than ever are riding Votran buses, but Volusia County's public-transit system is facing a $1.1 million budget shortfall next fiscal year. Those riders could end up paying more to fill the fiscal hole.
"I think we're really going to have to look at the fare increase," County Councilman Pat Patterson, DeLand, said. "There's no getting around that. It'll probably fill (the County Council chambers) up. We'll probably get beat up on that."
At its Thursday, March 14, meeting the County Council got news Votran anticipates the budget shortfall next fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1. Steve Sherrer, Votran's general manager, said there were options for reducing costs by eliminating some services, operations on Sundays and holidays, late runs, and routes.
Those proposals go counter to the 2012-2021 Transit Development Plan the county did in 2011. The federally-mandated plan recommended, among other things, increasing route frequency and hours of operation. About 75 percent of Votran's 25 fixed routes have hourly service, which goes from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays. Some routes are serviced until midnight. Most have reduced Saturday runs and no Sunday service.
Mr. Sherrer told the council that even with rosy, best-case projections, it's impossible for Votran to cut its way out of the coming financial deficit.
Votran is funded by a mixture of federal and state monies, along with fares, advertising and county general-fund dollars. This fiscal year, Votran's operating revenue is about $20.1 million. The county's general fund covers about $7.4 million of that.
Votran's operating budget is expected to increase to about $20.4 million next year. For the last few years, the public-transportation provider has had fund balances from previous years to plug budget holes, but that's run out.
"This is not good news and we all recognized this time was coming," At-Large Councilwoman Joyce Cusack said at the meeting. "It does give me heartburn to think about cutting services to folks who are already suffering. That's why they're customerrs on a Votan bus."
In 2007, Votran had about 2.9 million boardings. That edged slightly upward in 2008. There were about 3.1 million boardings in 2009. That increased to almost 3.3 million in 2010. In 2011, Votran had about 3.4 million boardings. The record increase in riders was between 2011 and 2012. Last year there were about 3.6 million boardings. Much of the increase is attributed to the recent recession and slow recovery.
From 2008 to 2012, there was a 5.8 percent increase in boardings, while the national average was 1.2 percent more public transit users.
Most riders pay $1.25 to board Votran busses. Senior citizens, people with disabilities and students pay 60 cents. Children under 6 ride free. Also, Votran sells daily, weekly and monthly bus passes that allow unlimited boardings. About 84 percent of regular-fare and 96 percent of reduced-fare riders use passes.
The last fare increase was 2007. The price of a one-way ride went from $1 to $1.25. It was the first fare increase since the 1990s. Dave Byron, community services director, said there was a small dip in boardings after the fare increase.
"We lost about 3 percent of our riders, which meant lost revenue," he said in an interview after the meeting. "We got it back; it'll come back."
Mr. Byron said there are federal guidelines to increasing public-transit fares.
"It requires public hearings and a good-faith effort to inform the public," he said. "It's a minimum of six months to go through the public-hearing process."
The next step is for county staff to prepare fare-increase proposals for the council to approve at a meeting, so public-hearings can start.
Votran started on the east side of Volusia in 1975, and was funded by a special taxing district. The county's contribution was shifted to the general fund shortly after services were expanded to the west side in 1994.
In other business, the council unanimously approved the DeLeon Springs Overlay District along U.S. 17. The rezoning eliminates split and mixed zoning. Amy Munizzi, DeLeon Springs Community Association's secretary, told the council the overlay would give the unincorporated town an opportunity to develop a commercial area.
"What we are remarkable for in our downtown is decay," she said. "This initiative is exciting for us."