April 17, 2021

Supervisors reduce HIRTA funding, transfer withheld money to RSVP

Discussions from budget workshop lead to $7K reduction for county’s public transit system

Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency (HIRTA) will be receiving less money from Jasper County by the start of fiscal year 2022; those withheld funds — about $7,000 — were instead given to another local transportation organization: the Jasper County Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).

The county supplied approximately $34,000 to HIRTA this past year. At a Feb. 16 budget workshop, Jasper County Supervisor Brandon Talsma proposed $7,000-$10,000 be transferred from HIRTA to RSVP, which was supported by fellow supervisor Denny Carpenter. The board settled on a $7,000 reduction.

“I think we need to look at shifting funds from HIRTA over to RSVP, with the condition that RSVP is of the understanding that additional funding is to continue to fund and expand their RIDE Program,” Talsma said.

Both organizations serve as public transit systems for Jasper County citizens.

Formed in 1981, HIRTA provides transportation services to seven counties across Central Iowa: Boone, Dallas, Jasper, Madison, Marion, Story and Warren. All vehicles are ADA-accessible and are open to people of all ages, abilities and income levels. Drivers even go through training programs upon hire.

RSVP drivers are made up of volunteers aged 55 and older, who are reimbursed for their gas mileage spent on trips. With its Jasper County RIDE program, the organization transports citizens all across the region to medically necessary appointments and doctor’s visits.

HIRTA and RSVP receive public funding from the county and the City of Newton, as well as federal funds when applicable.

Talsma argued the city pays HIRTA about the same amount as the county, but suggested the costs are disproportionately in Newton’s favor. Even after accounting for the city’s larger population and likelihood of more riders per trip, it costs nearly $2.75 per ride; whereas the county is $40 per ride.

“At 40-some dollars a ride for the small communities and unincorporated territories, that’s not exactly a good utilization of tax dollars,” Talsma said.

Operating public transit systems is expensive

Brooke Ramsey, business development manager of HIRTA, confirmed Talsma’s concerns: the trips within the county are “much more costly to operate” and cause more wear and tear on the vehicles, especially on secondary roads.

More fuel is expended. Drivers are on the road longer. And there are fewer people riding at one time. So, inevitably, costs add up.

HIRTA experienced its fair share of financial struggles these past years, too. Only recently has it seen some form of relief. In December 2020, Newton News reported HIRTA was now at a “sustainable level.”

Doug Cupples, chair of the Jasper County Board of Supervisors, disagreed that money should be taken away from HIRTA and lamented that it is expensive to run these types of transportation programs, which are oftentimes vital tools for communities.

“I see a huge problem if we were to not have this service in our community,” Cupples said. “…The people that rely on this service, a vast majority of them are people that need it.”

Disproportionate cost-benefits worries county supervisors

Talsma understands the community benefits from HIRTA’s services but said the county has to look at the cost-benefits. Ramsey said across the nation public transportation is usually used by people that are “transit dependent,” meaning they have no other form of transportation.

Sometimes this is caused by income restrictions or individual disabilities. But Ramsey said public transportation does “keep people living independently longer.” However, HIRTA still faces obstacles.

Internally, HIRTA is challenged with turnover of its staff, which puts the organization in a difficult spot. The pandemic affected the company, too. Although expenses were reduced because of government-ordered shutdowns, Ramsey said there were still more than $400,000 in expenses in Jasper County alone.

Ramsey said in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2019, HIRTA’s cost per trip was at $17.40 in Jasper County (including Newton); because of the pandemic, the costs went up to $31.36 per trip.

HIRTA qualified for economic relief via the CARES Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law in late-March 2020. In order to receive state and federal dollars, HIRTA is also required to match funding, or as Ramsey puts it: “dollar-for-dollar” funding.

“And we have to have local sources to be able to use those federal dollars or we have to allocate those federal dollars somewhere else,” she said. “… We don’t have contracted services running like we used to because of businesses being closed and people staying home.

“So our resources to find those matching dollars are more difficult in the current year and anticipated into the next year as well.”

In addition to reduced funding, HIRTA is denied a vehicle replacement

Before Talsma made his proposal to reduce HIRTA’s funding at the budget workshop, Cupples was in favor of retaining the county’s share of $34,000 for fiscal year 2022 but refused to provide the organization with matching funds for a vehicle replacement.

Ramsey said one vehicle in Jasper County is due for replacement and HIRTA has requested match funds to pay for it. If HIRTA can’t find a local match, the vehicle will be reassigned to a different transit system. After that, operating the vehicle due for replacement becomes more of an expense for the company.

Instead of replacing vehicles every five years, HIRTA has had to extend vehicles to a 10-year life cycle with 200,000-300,000 miles.

“So the costs for us to continue to operate those vehicles adds to the part of the problem of making these trips so expensive,” she said. “It’s difficult. It’s definitely your budget and your decision to make, but there are challenges when we can’t fully fund the service or the replacements that we have.”

Regardless, discussions of future funding will likely continue into the next budget year, Cupples suggested.

“It’s very possible that this is going to be a subject that’s brought up again next year,” Cupples said. “… There’s been some consideration of looking elsewhere, also, to see if someone else can do it differently.”

Other communities don’t contribute to HIRTA services

Even though HIRTA serves the other communities of Jasper County, none of the small town municipalities have opted to provide funding. Ramsey said the organization’s finance and incentive committees has asked those towns for equitable funding, starting at $2 per capita.

As of yet, those same communities have not pledged any funding to HIRTA for fiscal year 2022 nor asked them to join their budget workshops.

“Keep in mind four months of fiscal (year) 2020 did incorporate the pandemic and there were shut downs and so those numbers aren’t necessarily the demand we would typically see,” Ramsey said. “We cross our fingers and we hope people start getting their vaccines so we can get back to some normalcy.”

HIRTA wants to be prepared for that. Ramsey added that she could set up a time to provide the board of supervisors more details about the importance of public transit systems and why they request assistance from county governing bodies. Ramsey says HIRTA is doing everything it can to be sustainable.

“But there are some costs that we can’t control, like the cost for vehicles for example,” she said. “We can buy vehicles at a much lower cost than the average person can because of the government contracts we have access to and the binding power that comes with that.

“… We understand it’s expensive and it’s something that we continue to face as an ongoing challenge.”

HIRTA’s state funding formula is largely based on how many rides it is providing. Fewer trips and fewer miles means less funding received from the state and other federal sources, Ramsey said.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.