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OKC council quarrels over mass transit budget item

OKC council quarrels over mass transit budget item

by Brian Brus, The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY – The increased frequency of bus service on two routes in the city’s public transit system proved to be a larger issue on the Oklahoma City 2009-10 budget than its price tag might suggest.

Just before approving the budget Tuesday, and after sitting through several weeks of department presentations and largely avoiding conflict in council chambers, ward representatives got stuck on a $169,000 item worth less than one-tenth of a percent of the $840 million budget.

“Since I’ve been on the council six years now, there have been no changes in the basic bus system … except to either eliminate or reduce routes,” Ward 2 Councilman Sam Bowman said.

“Every person we’ve heard from in workshop or otherwise has said no matter what our ambitions are, our plans about mass transit … we have got to build on the basic system we have. And we haven’t taken heed of that,” he said.

“Finally, we are beginning to take those first steps, baby steps, to build our own foundation.”

But Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee, one of two people who voted against the item, said he supports a comprehensive mass transit component of the upcoming MAPS3 sales tax issue and would prefer to see new routes addressed in that package of projects.

McAtee said he sympathizes with users of public transportation, “but we can’t have a bus every place, everywhere, every time to take anyone anywhere in the city. That’s just not a function of mass transit.”

One of the routes, No. 8, extends from the downtown central business district to Wilshire Boulevard and to Northwest Expressway via NW 63rd Street. The second route, No. 40, extends from the downtown central business district to SW 104th Street via Walker Avenue, Western Avenue and Santa Fe Avenue. The addition of buses on those lines during peak hours will cut waiting time almost in half, officials said.

The overall budget of $839,624,833 and a general fund budget of $350,351,044 were passed unanimously. Major changes included:
• A new Development Services Department that combines inspection services for zoning, nuisance abatement and abandoned housing.
• A new Office of Sustainability funded with economic stimulus funds to enhance the city’s current energy-efficiency efforts.
• Implementation of a Medical Services Program, or TotalCare, that offers emergency ambulance service to citizens and reduces the city’s general fund subsidy to EMSA by $3.3 million.
• A significant increase in street resurfacing and maintenance efforts with the use of $15.2 million of economic stimulus funds.

City Manager Jim Couch said no additional services or program improvements for general fund departments were included in the budget, and the number of staff positions remains the same as the previous year at 4,455. Also, there were no pay increases for city employees in the budget.

But just before the budget was approved, the bus routes item was added and required a separate vote. McAtee and Ward 5 Councilman Brian Walters opposed the addition. The routes item passed 5-2.

Walters initially said he voted against the item because tapping into the city manager’s contingency fund for even a small item set a bad precedent. But Ward 1 Councilman Gary Marrs explained the money was actually part of an unused Medical Service Program revenue stabilization reserve.

Walters held his position for other reasons: “This is simply a desire to spend $170,000. … There are other things out there that you could argue are a larger priority. And where do we stop?” he said.

“The priorities stop right here, Brian, with a vote of this council,” Bowman said, adding that those priorities represent the citizens’ interests. Ward 4 Councilman Pete White echoed Bowman’s comments.

Meg Salyer, Ward 6 councilwoman, supported the item, but said, “I don’t think our bus system is working well at all, and from a budgetary standpoint, I’m almost concerned we’re tearing up every dollar we’re spending for a bus system. It’s not efficient for our citizens.”

Ward 6 Councilman Skip Kelly said numerous formal and informal surveys in recent years have revealed citizens want more access to public transportation.

“We’re doing the best with what we have,” Kelly said. “As long as we have a bus system, I think we should do whatever we can to enhance that system until we can get a real mass transit system. … We can’t agree on $169,000 to support the services for those individuals who have a minimum-wage job who have to sit at a bus stop sometimes an hour in some of these routes, and we can’t do something like this?”

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