Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Jackson residents had the opportunity to weigh in on the city's proposed fiscal year 2011 budget during a Sept. 7 public hearing. While the city will not increase property taxes or lay off employees, the city's public transportation system, JATRAN, faces a reduction in routes, and open driver positions will remain vacant.
Last week, city department heads and Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. answered an array of questions from council members about departmental expenses, programs and staff duties. The city is facing a $10 smaller operating for fiscal year 2011 of $256.1 million compared to $266.7 for 2010. City spokesman Chris Mims said that the city has managed to recover $5.6 million from restructuring its bond debt, and carried over $2.3 million in departmental savings. The city is also using $3.1 million from its reserve funds.
JATRAN's total operating budget is $11 million, including $3.4 million in federal stimulus funds, a 2.3 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration and another $760,000 FTA grant. The city's contribution of $4 million for JATRAN is consistent with fiscal year 2010. Corinne Fox, director of planning and development, said that while there are additional sources of funding, most of those funds go toward making city buses more accessible for the disabled. In March, the council approved an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to install wheelchair lifts and ramps on its fleet of JATRAN buses and hire a finance coordinator to make sure the city is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The agreement is the result of a 2008 lawsuit, which Jackson resident Scott Crawford, the Mississippi Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities and Disability Rights Mississippi filed against Jackson for not abiding by the act.
Ward 2 Councilman Chowke Lumumba voiced concern about JATRAN's sustainability for the future.
"What I think is that we have to find a way to make JATRAN self-sustainable," Lumumba said.
"I'm trying to provoke a sufficient interest in planning and development. I don't think it's going to happen over one year period. But I think over a period of time, if we make that a serious objective, we can do it."
Johnson told council members last week that the planning department would look at the volume of traffic on bus routes and decide which routes to reduce or consolidate.
"We are generating ideas, and one of the things we did for this budgeting process was to present this charge and challenge to JATRAN to make sure that there was no increase in our contribution this year, but at the same time to look at the future to see what adjustments can be arranged with the existing ridership to bring about cost savings," Johnson said.
Johnson said the department expects a 7.5 percent savings in JATRAN's budget over the next two years.
"As we looked at the budget, a large portion had to do with personnel and benefits. By reducing the number of operators by six, we could reduce cost over the long run to get to that cost savings. As we make reductions in routes, that could be a way to increase ridership," he said.
"...Instead of the bus coming every 15 minutes, the bus may come every half hour."
To increase ridership and revenue, Lumumba proposes that Jackson Public Schools supply vouchers for students to ride the bus to and from school. He also suggested that bus routes go as far as Hinds Community College's Raymond campus and that the city market riding the bus as a way for people to save on gas money and avoid the hassle of parking.
During last week's budget hearings, Johnson also highlighted economic development efforts the planning department is undertaking. In addition to developing incentives for small businesses such as storefront grants, Johnson the city is pursuing a health-care industry expansion.
"No one else in Mississippi can compete with us in terms of the health-care industry, and maybe in the Southeast," Johnson said. "We are focusing more of our efforts on developing relations with the health-care industry and trying to use that as an economic development tool."
On Sept. 8, council members will address proposed budgets for the Jackson Zoo, the city's library system and the Jackson Public Schools District. The council votes to adopt the budget Sept. 14.