With Grays Harbor Transit aiming to cut about $800,000 from its 2014 operating budget, Harborites are voicing concerns about the quality of service they’ll be left with. One plan for expense cuts eliminates weekend routes, another thins service across the board.
The Grays Harbor Transit Board won’t make a decision until July 9, but one thing is already certain: no matter what gets cut, some segment of the population will be upset.
About 100 concerned citizens packed into the Aberdeen City Council chambers Thursday afternoon to voice their concerns and make recommendations to the board members. The transit system affects their ability to be productive and work, and their basic happiness by helping them stay connected with the rest of the world, most explained.
The discussion grew heated at times. A few speakers cried when they took the podium and others swore at the board members. Other citizens accused the board of not doing enough to prevent the budget crisis.
“What happened here, who dropped the ball?” said Jason Aggarty, a student at Grays Harbor College. “Who screwed up where?”
Several people arrived in wheelchairs or assisted by canes, and others told stories about their battles with blindness, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis — conditions that make it difficult for them to drive.
Sharon Martin of Ocean Shores said her disability makes her reliant on buses to get everywhere — to doctors appointments, to visit friends and to do her shopping. She said she would likely have to move away from Grays Harbor if the transit system were cut significantly.
“I really love Grays Harbor and I want to stay,” Martin said. “But there are a lot of people like me who have physical limitations. Without the bus, I can’t get out.”
Many people said they’d rather see rate increases or sales tax increases instead of service cuts. Grays Harbor Transit currently charges $25 for a monthly pass and $1 for a single ride in the county. Seniors, youth and disabled people get a discount.
“I think that 30 bucks for a monthly pass would be fine,” said Don Bridges of Westport.
Bridges said he’s rather see the board wait for more revenue instead of making service changes.
But Mark Carlin, general manager of Grays Harbor Transit, said solving the problem isn’t that easy. Fare increases won’t cover the $800,000 budget gap, and a tax increase would need to be put on the November ballot and wouldn’t be effective until June of 2014.
Grays Harbor Transit currently collects a 0.06 percent sales tax — part of the 8.4 percent sales tax collected in most areas of Grays Harbor. Legally, the transit board can raise their sales tax to 0.09 percent, which would have a relatively minor impact on people’s budgets. With the current sales tax, shoppers pay $8.40 in taxes for every $100 spent. If the transportation tax is increased to 0.09 percent, shoppers will pay $8.43 in taxes for every $100 spent.
Carlin said the board can’t afford to wait for the tax increase solution — they need to act now. The agency’s expenditures exceed revenues by $79,500 each month, putting Grays Harbor Transit on track to have $700,000 in the coffer by June of 2014. This isn’t an option, as current board policy mandates the agency have a reserve of $1.2 million, which is enough to keep buses running for two months.
“We need to eliminate some service as soon as we can,” Carlin said.
This is a common problem for transit systems across the state, with state and federal funding decreasing, Carlin said King County Metro will cut 22 percent of service in September and Pierce Transit is facing a 28 percent reduction — including the elimination of all weekend buses.
Grays Harbor Transit received about $2.3 million in government funding between 2009 and 2011. The agency will likely see only $1.9 million in funding between 2013 and 2015. Carlin said Grays Harbor Transit applied for $3.1 million in grants this year but only received $1.3 million.
“It’s a really tough decision, but I’m glad to see so many citizens showing an interest,” Carlin said. “I wasn’t expecting this many people to show up. I think this will give the board some direction.”
Carlin said any services that are cut will be re-instated once funding is restored.
Not all of the speakers showed up to represent the disabled community. Some people spoke on behalf of Grays Harbor College students — especially those who live in outlying areas such as Grayland and Lake Quinault.
Arlene Torgerson, vice president of student services at Grays Harbor College, said college officials are concerned about students’ ability to get to class if weekday routes are cut back. She advocated for weekend cuts instead.
The Grays Harbor Transit Board will hear more citizen comments at a June 25 meeting, which will be held at 6 p.m. at Aberdeen City Hall.
Amelia Dickson, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3936, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org