Although the IndeBus service is on the budget chopping block for the city of Independence, area officials say they’re working on a way to avoid cutting those routes.
Ideally, that solution could come from federal pandemic emergency aid disbursed to the city.
“I’m working directly with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, with other agencies in the region, with the state, with the federal government,” Mayor Eileen Weir said, “to say how can we, by the time we adopt this budget, find this funding so we can plug that number into the budget and restore the service.”
But in the meantime, Independence city staff has to present a balanced budget next week to the City Council, and the council must approve the budget in mid-June; the new fiscal year starts July 1.
The city said last week it would continue to have the IndeAccess paratransit services – individual rides – as well as the RideKC routes from the depot next to the Square into Kansas City, but the IndeBus six routes that fan out from the depot to various points within Independence would go away Aug. 1.
Those routes run to the city’s major grocery stores, Independence Center, Walmart stores, Metropolitan Community Colleges-Blue River and other dozens of other locations. The six routes carry about 185,000 riders annually – total, not unique – according to city staff. Cutting them saves the city about $900,000 in the general fund, which covers a variety of services.
Weir said she’s working feverishly to avoid that cut. The city will get some money from the $123 million allocated to Jackson County through the CARES Act, but it can’t balance the budget with a source to be determined and is on a tight calendar.
“We, I, am so aware of how important this bus service is all the time, and especially now,” Weir said, “when people are struggling financially, when they need to get to their doctor’s appointments, their jobs, the grocery store, church and so on. I take that very seriously.”
While City Manager Zach Walker spoke just a couple months about his hope to enhance the city’s public transit, but instead the pandemic hastened discussion of budget cuts due to loss of sales tax revenue. When the city announced the planned cuts last week, Walker said it already had been talking with KCATA about a long-term solution.
“This was totally driven by COVID-19,” he said. “But this needs to be part of a larger regional conversation.”
“They’ve expressed a strong desire to help us out here,” Walker said of the KCATA. “They are actively working to help us find funding.”
Robbie Makinen, executive director and CEO of the KCATA, echoed that assessment.
“RideKC Independence is a critical part of the regional transit system,” Makinen said in a statement. “We are actively working with Mayor Weir to come up with a solution to continue providing integrated services for the citizens of Independence who depend on RideKC transit.”
During last week’s Audit and Finance Committee, Walker said the IndeBus service cost the city $6.16 per mile in the current fiscal year. Rider fares cover 42 cents of that, and federal funds cover another $2.46, leaving $3.28 for the city to cover, and that latter figure’s has risen from $2.84 three years ago.
The city’s cost of intercity service with RideKC costs $165,000, while paratransit service costs $680,000.
Council Member Karen DeLuccie said the budget crunch caused by the pandemic won’t last forever, and the per-mile cost should come down for now due to lower gas prices. She questioned if the city could use a portion of the $25 million emergency loan fund, which the council approved from utility reserve funds.
“I voted to do that line of credit in order to avoid cutting services,” DeLuccie said. “If we write it out of budget, we’re not going to revisit this in August. I don’t want to balance the book on the backs of people who can’t afford it.”
Walker said the council could vote to draw further on the loan, beyond the $2 million he’s already planning to use for the general fund, though it wouldn’t be his recommendation.
“The more we draw down, the larger the credit card bill,” he said. “I don’t want to cut service, but we’ve got to start looking at the world post-pandemic.”
Council Member Scott Roberson suggested the city could use another bus service like OATS Transit (Operating Above the Standard) to help with senior and disabled transportation, but he said his biggest concern is those not eligible for paratransit who need the bus service to get to jobs.
“In some respects, I believe this is an essential service,” he said.
Council Member John Perkins wondered if CARES Act funds could be used as debt service after the city taps into the intrafund emergency loan.
Walker said the city could say cutting bus service is a pandemic expenditure, but it can’t use funds directly to offset revenues.
“We’re going to throw everything within reason at this,” Walker said. “We don’t want to cut this; we’re just trying to find a way to plug our gap.”
The council voted four weeks ago on a $151,000 contract for improvements at 20 bus stops around the city, almost all of it covered by a federal grant that must be used this summer. Walker said the city will first focus on the stops that are part of remaining routes into Kansas City, and if a budget stopgap to preserve routes within Independence doesn’t happen then remaining funds will further enhance those stops.
“We are in a pressure cooker to come up with this funding,” Weir said. “But it is vitally important, we all understand that, and I’m working to try to find some resources, to at least give us some emergency funding for a year or two, until we get our economy back rolling and we’ll be able to absorb that into our own budget.”