All five common council members expressed agreement at a transportation department committee meeting on Tuesday with Mayor Michael Villa to end the city’s public transportation department. Officials said the shutdown could come as early as the beginning of May.
“I think in the end, it’s the only solution and it’s the best solution for us,” said Villa in regards to shutting down the department.
The consensus comes as city officials are looking for ways to make up negative fund balances in several city funds, including the general fund and transportation fund, which were indicated in the most recent audit report for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
Villa said previously he had hoped to send out a request for proposals to find a private contractor to take over bus transportation for the city before shutting the department down. However he said at the meeting that federal laws made the move too expensive.
“This was not as easy a task as we had initially anticipated. The RFP route just did not work,” said Villa.
Villa said that based on his understanding of federal law, if the city paid any amount of money to a private contractor for transportation services, the city would still be required to pay the salaries of the current transportation department employees for another year. The personnel budget line in the 2017-2018 transportation budget is listed at $256,550.
Villa said that the Amsterdam-based transportation company Brown Coach, which currently operates the Montgomery Area Express bus service, has given him a verbal commitment to provide coverage of the current bus route to Albany, which is utilized by approximately 20 people per day. He said that Brown Coach has also expressed willingness to cover some of the other routes in the city, used by approximately 40 people per day, however further details were not available. The company would operate the service independently and not receive any city funds. A message requesting comment from Brown Coach was not returned in time for this article.
Although the city has used state and federal money to operate the transportation system over the years, it has still needed to contribute money from the general fund each year in order to qualify for federal funding. The city budgeted $193,047 to transfer from the general fund to the transportation fund for 2017-2018. Alderman Jim Martuscello said that he was hopeful that the full transfer for this fiscal year would not need to be made.
Although stopping the service will reduce the taxpayer burden each year, the city will still need to pay back approximately $269,000 due to the use of federal funds to pay for the transportation department building and buses. Martuscello said that state officials have said that the city can repay the amount in installments, however he did not know what the terms would be. The city could also avoid paying some of the amount by transferring ownership of two of the newest buses to another public transportation system. The other seven of nine city-owned buses could be sold. Alderman Chad Majewski said he would reach out to state and national legislators to see if the debt could be forgiven.
Villa said he hopes to see the transportation department building used to replace the current department of public works building which requires major roof repairs.