The common council voted unanimously to abolish the section of the city charter that establishes the city transportation department, but not before a number of local residents spoke out against the move at a public hearing held before the regular council meeting on Tuesday night.
The seating for the public was nearly filled to capacity, and approximately nine people spoke against the move to close the department.
Nancy Rad, community schools coordinator for the Greater Amsterdam School District, presented the council with a letter signed by 104 students. Rad read the letter aloud which said that many students rely on the system to either get to school, get home from after-school activities, or to get to after-school jobs.
Corey Bixby, president and business agent of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1321, which represents the bus drivers in the department, said he understood the council’s desire to be fiscally responsible, but that the move would not save as much money as they estimated.
The city currently faces the task of making up a negative $3.8 million fund balance in the general fund. Over the past six years, the transportation department has required anywhere from $110,000 to $354,000 per year from the general fund in order to operate and receive matching federal funds. At a committee meeting held last month, the council discussed a figure of approximately $269,000 that the city will still owe the state even after shutting down the department. Alderman Chad Majewski said he would engage state leaders to see if the debt could be forgiven.
“The money that’s owed for grants from the federal government, and the state [department of transportation], they don’t just let money like that go away,” said Bixby.
“What’s a problem here is short-sightedness. We’re not looking at the big picture. I understand fiscal responsibility, but changing the city charter to remove the transportation department is a travesty to the voters and the members of the City of Amsterdam. This action does not reflect the will of the people you were elected or appointed to represent,” he said.
Bixby also said he had a petition of “hundreds” of residents to force a permissive referendum on the issue. However, Corporation Counsel William Lorman disagreed that a referendum is required.
“New York State home rule law clearly sets forth when a referendum is discretionary and when it’s mandatory, and eliminating the transportation department requires neither,” said Lorman.
“Our lawyers disagree with that statement,” said Bixby. “We will see what goes forward if the vote is not in favor of the community at this point.”
One resident said she recently moved to the city in July, and tried using the city bus system, but found several times that the buses did not show up according to schedule.
“As a new resident, I would like to rely on the bus, I don’t have a car, I don’t have any other transportation but the cab service,” she said.
Another speaker identified himself as a bus driver for the city transportation department and said that he sees ridership growing and expressed concern for those on a fixed income who rely on the system and can’t afford a taxi cab.
Two other speakers who identified themselves as long-time city residents both said they were concerned that taxi-cabs are not equipped handle people with disabilities.
One resident said, “It is clear to me, and I hope clear to all of you, that having no public transportation in the city of Amsterdam will have a negative impact in our community. Our goal is to improve our city, and no public transportation will be a step back.”
Another resident asked, “I was wondering if you would consider shutting down the golf course to save money?”
Fabrizia Rodriguez, the current director of the transportation department said, “I’m here to support my drivers, I’m also here to support my riders, and to support the families that I work with very closely in the Amsterdam school district.”
Rodriguez said she felt the department had made great strides in recent months in creating more efficient bus routes, and said she had been working on securing a $50,000 grant to help offset personnel costs.
She cautioned that even if the department is shut down, that the city’s transportation problems will still remain. She called on the council to create a transportation committee to continue looking for solutions.
Valerie Beekman, former second ward alderwoman, said in regards to closing of the department, “I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls, and they are highly disappointed.”
At a committee meeting held on March 28, the council members and mayor agreed unofficially to shut down the department, possibly as early as May 1.