The RTA board is fairly divided, it seems, between those with their eyes on the money and those with their eyes on the mission.

Board GM Joe Calabrese called a special meeting on Thursday to discuss which of the possible money-saving tactics, enacted last year at budget time, that they would now have to employ to stay afloat. Most of the discussion concerned whether the agency’s dozen Community Circulators should be saved, covered by even steeper fare increases across the board.

“Sales tax revenues, the agency’s primary funding source, are 10.7 percent lower this year than 2008,” , a loss of nearly $19 million, Calabrese noted matter-of-factly. “The options are: We can raise fares and reduce service; we can raise fares only; and reduce service only. The only other [option] is one I can’t find, and that’s to balance our budget.”

Calabrese brought staffers forward to explain, in detail, how exactly the shit has hit the fan. The money-crunchers, essentially: “It’s not pretty.”

The agency faces a $5.5 million deficit at the end of this year, if it doesn’t take action. The sales tax dip is “five times worse than the worse year in RTA’s history,” said Calabrese, and from ’02 to last year, the state has reduced funding by about 62 percent. He claimed that staff and efficiencies couldn’t be stretched any further.

At budget time last year, a fare increase of as much as 50 cents and service cuts were enacted to offset rising fuel costs and a projected $20 million deficit, but then the board deferred the changes — enacting a quarter hike and far fewer cuts in routes, in hopes of finding more funding assistance. It didn’t come through.

“We’re here today because, just a few days ago, we really thought that, as a staff, we could make it through without these cuts,” said Calabrese. “We no longer feel that way.”

The staff’s opinion now, he said: Let the quarter increase go through, effective Aug. 23, and cut those buses — and about 100 staffers — that have the least ridership, no matter how popular.

Most — and the most protective — comments at a series of hearings at budget time concerned saving the local circulators. RTA acknowledges that it’s a popular service in a dozen communities, for commuters, the elderly and the poor. But, Calabrese said, ridership is declining, and if the agency does nothing, it will face a $29 million deficit by the end of 2010.

Board member and Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough said many people, apparently including himself, were under the impression that money from the Northeast Ohio Regional Transportation Authority would negate the need for any more cuts for awhile. He recommended letting the additional quarter hike go through and waiting to hear more public input before eliminating circulators of other routes. “Most people, during the public hearings, expressed their opinion that they’d rather pay an increase, but also, when we received the money from the state, I believe most people believed that the cuts weren’t coming.”

Calabrese and staff: The state money only filled in a third of the hole. On Wednesday, they were discussing how to fill the rest.

Member Valarie McCall, Mayor Frank Jackson’s chief of government affairs, urged colleagues to be prudent in deciding which routes to cut so abruptly, mentioning that she’d only read one of the three full pages of routes to be slashed. “We’ll make a decision today, get up and walk away, and we won’t hear anything,” she said. “But in a week or two, when that circulator doesn’t show up, we’ll be inundated with calls from the public, just like last time.”

But Calabrese, after reminding McCall that no action needed to be taken to make the changes reality, added, “We should only be so lucky that these are the only cuts we have to make. Chances are, if we work to save some routes here today, they’re going to be on the table in 60 days anyway.”

Combined, the changes would fill in about $3.7 million of the $5.5 million hole. They’re still at a loss about how to come up with the rest. Still, reminded Calabrese, if the board waited any longer than Wednesday — even the month that many members wanted to let riders find alternate routes and options — it would cost $550,000 a month to do it.

Member Bill Patmon, in attendance via speakerphone, criticized Calabrese when the general manager lauded how a survey last year found that 60 percent of riders mentioned they’d take another bus, no problem. “What about the 40 percent who were not included in that?” asked Patmon. “How do they manage?”

286e/1247785695-rtacorridor.jpgTwo years ago, the American Public Transit Association named our admittedly useful Regional Transit Authority as the best service nationwide. We wonder if RTA will get the nod this year.

A lot of people blame the costly Euclid Corridor project (a widely lauded improvement paid for mostly with other agencies’ money) for the RTA’s woes. Here’s more things to blame: population loss, recessionary spending, unemployment, costly RTA buildings and bus drivers who pump the A/C with the windows open.

We’d prefer to blame county commissioners for all of this. Maybe instead of increasing sales taxes to give the Kennedy family a half-billion dollars for a "medical mart," they could have raised the sales tax to shore up RTA, which serves Clevelanders who actually work for a living. — Dan Harkins

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