The mayors of Bloomington and Normal said Friday they have no plans to recall Connect Transit board members after Normal Township's supervisor accused the agency of withholding public comments which were critical of fare hikes and route changes before the board’s vote on Tuesday.
The board voted 5-1 to increase fares starting October 1 and to eliminate the Olive Route in Normal starting July 1 as part of a route restructuring.
Bloomington and Normal’s mayors appoint members of the Connect Transit board, subject to city council approval. Bloomington is allotted four members and Normal three, based on population proportion. Both city managers also serve on the board as non-voting members. One seat which Normal appoints remains vacant.
Normal Mayor Chris Koos said he fully supports all of the trustees, including the two appointed by the town: Chairman Mike McCurdy and Julie Hile.
“Sarah Grammer only communicates with the Town of Normal (elected officials) and staff with criticism and ultimatums,” Koos said. “If it’s her intention to drive a wedge between the Town of Normal and Normal Township, she’s succeeding.”
Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said he’s not pulling the city’s trustees either, saying he doesn't believe the transit agency deliberately tried to stifle public feedback.
“There’s a difference between accessibility and listening to people and doing exactly what people want you to do,” Renner said.
Bloomington's appointed trustees are Monica Bullington, Judy Buchanan, John Bowman and Vice Chairman Ryan Whitehouse.
As for the long email exchange which played out between Grammer and McCurdy, Renner suggested a different approach.
“When people send out emails – and I can even be the poster child for that – it’s better to pick up the phone or just one-on-one talk to the person and explain what your concerns are and why,” Renner added. “It’s easier to put something in writing or criticize if you don’t get an immediate answer and you can sometimes tell the inflection of what someone is saying and maybe even correct – almost immediately – some misperceptions on people’s part.”
Grammer maintained her position that the Connect Transit board should hold another hearing and give those who did not get to directly address the board the chance to do so.
“The current board has another opportunity to have another hearing to have another vote with all of the community feedback in mind in front of them,” she said.
Grammer had no comment when asked if she planned to take further action.
The public dispute over the Connect Transit’s handling of fare increases and route changes comes against the backdrop of a gloomy financial picture for an agency that’s already largely subsidized by local taxing bodies.
Normal has significantly increased its funding to the transit agency in recent years to better help it capture matching federal grants. The town currently contributes about $850,000, including $400,000 for operations and the rest of capital expenses including buses and transfer stations.
Koos said he and city manager Pam Reece plan to talk with the town’s representatives on the board to get a better handle on its finances and then involve the town council, which will have at least one new member starting in May.
Koos conceded any additional funding for Connect Transit would likely come at the expense of some other important service.
“That’s always the case in a tight budget,” Koos said. “It’s a matter of priorities and what the council wishes.”
Bloomington provides Connect Transit $610,000 for operations in the city’s current budget and another $600,000 for capital expenses.
Renner said he’s willing to have a conversation with the transit board, but said that doesn’t mean the city is going to be “opening up our pocketbooks.”
“We might be able to give them some advice, some cost-cutting they haven’t heard. It doesn’t mean the conversation will only be, how much money do you get.”
Grammer said the township was willing to explore helping Connect Transit secure additional funding to help cover $7,000 in fare increases for Connect Mobility 30-day passes.
“That all falls on the shoulders of people with disability in our community,” Grammer said.
Connect Mobility provides on-demand service for the disabled. The agency later pulled the proposal and instead came up a value card, which would cut fares between 5 and 15 percent as opposed to capping fees for its more frequent users.
“My trust in the Connect Transit board has been greatly diminished, so I need to hear from them that they are going to make this situation right before I sit down with them and that trust is going to have to be rebuilt,” she said.
McCurdy explained the staff had determined that the switch to a value card was a more equitable solution since in some cases the 30-day pass was being underutilized.
Transit officials have said if they are also raise about an additional $100,000 per year, they could avoid passing on the entire cost to riders.
Editor's note: Connect Transit Chairman Mike McCurdy is GLT's program director.
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