The Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency (HIRTA) will receive less money from Jasper County early in fiscal 2022. Those withheld funds – about $ 7,000 – were instead given to another local transportation organization: the Jasper County Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).
The county donated around $ 34,000 to HIRTA last year. At a budget workshop on February 16, Jasper County Supervisor Brandon Talsma suggested transferring $ 7,000 to $ 10,000 from HIRTA to RSVP, with the help of colleague Denny Carpenter. The board of directors opted for a $ 7,000 discount.
“I think we need to look at moving funds from HIRTA to RSVP on condition that RSVP believes that additional funds will continue to fund and expand the RIDE program,” said Talsma.
Both organizations serve as public transportation systems for residents of Jasper County.
Founded in 1981, HIRTA provides transportation services to seven counties in central Iowa: Boone, Dallas, Jasper, Madison, Marion, Story, and Warren. All vehicles are ADA accessible and open to people of all ages, abilities, and income levels. The drivers even go through training programs when they rent.
RSVP drivers are made up of volunteers aged 55 and over who are reimbursed for fuel miles spent on trips. With its Jasper County RIDE program, the organization transports citizens across the region to medically necessary appointments and doctor visits.
HIRTA and RSVP receive public funding from the County and City of Newton and federal funding as appropriate.
Talsma argued that the city pays HIRTA about the same amount as the county, but suggested that the cost was disproportionately in Newton’s favor. Even after taking into account the city’s larger population and the likelihood of more drivers per trip, it costs almost $ 2.75 per trip. The county costs $ 40 one way.
“At $ 40 per trip for the small communities and areas without legal personality, that’s not exactly a good use of taxpayers’ money,” said Talsma.
Public transport is expensive to operate
Brooke Ramsey, Business Development Manager at HIRTA, confirmed Talsma’s concerns: The trips within the county are “much more expensive to operate” and cause more wear and tear on vehicles, especially on back roads.
More fuel is used. The drivers are on the road longer. And fewer people drive at the same time. So the costs inevitably add up.
In the past few years, too, HIRTA has had its fair share of financial difficulties. Only recently has it seen some form of relief. In December 2020, Newton News reported that HIRTA was now at a “sustainable level”.
Doug Cupples, chairman of the Jasper County Board of Supervisors, disagreed that money should be taken away from HIRTA and complained that it was expensive to run these types of transportation programs, which are often important tools for communities.
“I see a big problem when we don’t have this service in our community,” said Cupples. “… The people who rely on this service, the vast majority of them are people who need it.”
Disproportionate cost-benefit problems are worrying the district’s supervisory authorities
Talsma understands the benefits of HIRTA’s services to the community, but said the county needs to consider the cost benefits. Ramsey said public transportation across the country is typically used by people who are “passage dependent,” meaning they have no other form of transportation.
Sometimes this is caused by income restrictions or individual disabilities. But Ramsey said public transportation “makes people live independently longer”. However, HIRTA still faces obstacles.
Internally, HIRTA is confronted with the fluctuation of its employees, which puts the organization in a difficult position. The pandemic also affected the company. Although spending was reduced due to government-ordered shutdowns, Ramsey said there was still more than $ 400,000 in spending in Jasper County alone.
Ramsey said in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 that HIRTA’s cost per trip in Jasper County (including Newtons) was $ 17.40; Due to the pandemic, the cost increased to $ 31.36 per trip.
HIRTA qualified for economic relief through the CARES Act, which was passed by Congress and incorporated into law at the end of March 2020. To receive state and federal dollars, HIRTA must also adjust funding, or as Ramsey puts it, “dollar-for-dollar” funding.
“And we have to have local sources to use those federal dollars or we have to allocate those federal dollars elsewhere,” she said. “… We no longer have contracted services as we used to because shops are closed and people stay at home.
“As a result, our resources to find the right dollars are more difficult this year and are expected next year as well.”
In addition to the reduced funding, HIRTA will be denied vehicle replacement
Before Talsma made its proposal to reduce HIRTA’s funding at the budget workshop, Cupples advocated keeping the county’s $ 34,000 stake for fiscal 2022, but refused to provide the organization with adequate funding for a vehicle replacement to deliver.
Ramsey said a vehicle needs to be replaced in Jasper County and has requested HIRTA Match Matchs to pay for it. If HIRTA cannot find a local match, the vehicle will be reassigned to a different transit system. After that, the operation of the vehicle to be replaced becomes a greater effort for the company.
Instead of replacing vehicles every five years, HIRTA had to extend the vehicles to a 10-year life cycle with 200,000 to 300,000 miles.
“The cost of keeping these vehicles running adds to the problem of making these trips so expensive,” she said. “It’s difficult. It’s definitely your budget and your choice, but there are challenges when we can’t fully fund the service or replacement we have.”
Regardless, discussions about future funding are likely to continue into the next budget year, Cupples suggested.
“It is very likely that this will be an issue that will come up again next year,” said Cupples. “… There was some thought to look elsewhere to see if someone else could do it differently.”
Other municipalities do not contribute to HIRTA services
While HIRTA serves the other parishes in Jasper County, none of the small town parishes has chosen to provide funding. Ramsey said the organization’s finance and incentive committees have asked these cities for fair funding, starting at $ 2 per capita.
So far, the same municipalities have neither committed funds to HIRTA for the 2022 financial year nor asked them to participate in their budget workshops.
“Remember, four months of fiscal (year) 2020 included the pandemic and stalled, so these numbers are not necessarily the demand we would normally see,” Ramsey said. “We keep our fingers crossed and hope that people will start getting their vaccines so we can get back to a certain degree of normalcy.”
HIRTA wants to be prepared for this. Ramsey added that she could set up a time to provide the board of directors with more details about the importance of public transportation systems and why they are soliciting assistance from county government bodies. Ramsey says HIRTA is doing everything it can to be sustainable.
“But there are some costs that we cannot control, such as the cost of vehicles,” she said. “We can buy vehicles at a much lower cost than the average person because of the government contracts to which we have access and the binding force that goes with them.
“… We understand that it is expensive and that we must continue to face a constant challenge.”
HIRTA’s government funding formula is largely based on the number of trips offered. Fewer trips and fewer miles mean less funding received from state and other federal sources, Ramsey said.
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or email@example.com