BLOOMINGTON — A Bloomington alderman wants the City Council to reject Connect Transit's budget as a way of prompting the bus system's board to reverse its impending elimination of the Olive route and increasing fares.
But Mayor Tari Renner opposes such a move, calling it a "nuclear option" because he fears it could end up shutting down the public transportation system indefinitely.
Ward 8 Alderman Jeff Crabill has submitted an aldermanic request to discuss at Monday's council work session whether other council members would support putting the issue to a vote when the council meets in a regular voting session on June 24.
"What I would like for them to do is to put on the agenda a regular vote as to whether to reject Connect Transit's budget," said Crabill. "The overall goal would be not to reject the budget but work with Connect Transit to get them to agree to delay the elimination of the Olive Route July 1 and reconsider the fare increases that start in October."
Crabill will need to have the support of five council members, including himself, to place the vote on the agenda. He said he did not know if he had a consensus.
Renner said a June 24 vote rejecting Connect Transit's budget would leave the agency only six days to negotiate a new budget before its fiscal year begins July 1.
"This is the most extreme measure you can take and it could have extreme outcomes," said Renner. "It is possible that Connect Transit could just stop on July 1 and that means nobody wins. Because this would be an ordinance change, I cannot veto it. If I could I absolutely would. There are way too many risks for human beings in our city."
Connect Transit General Manager Isaac Thorne said the system may be able to operate on reserve funds for a few months — Bloomington's legal counsel is looking into whether that's allowed without a budget — but service would almost definitely stop later this year because state funding would be delayed.
Two-thirds of the bus system's operating budget comes from the Illinois Department of Transportation. But that funding is delivered only after IDOT processes an application for Connect Transit, a process that takes months and would need to be restarted if the system adopted a new budget.
"It's absolutely a nuclear option. We don't know what would happen," said Thorne of rejecting the budget. "I don't want to hit the panic button right now, but the possibility of Connect Transit shutting down scares customers and employees, and it should."
An intergovernmental agreement requires the bus system to work with the city and town of Normal on a new fiscal plan if either of the municipalities rejects Connect Transit's budget.
Normal City Council member Karyn Smith has also floated rejecting the bus system's budget but didn't get enough support to put a vote on the agenda for Normal's meeting Monday. That's the last chance for the town to act before July 1 unless officials schedule an additional council meeting.
Normal Mayor Chris Koos said he opposes voting to reject the budget, and didn't put a vote on Monday's agenda because it could jeopardize state funding.
"What's on the agenda is an update from Isaac Thorne and (board member and Normal appointee) Julie Hile," said Koos.
Thorne is slated to speak to the Bloomington council at 6 p.m. and then address the town council at 7 p.m. Thorne said his main goal is to correct misconceptions about the system.
"There's been a plethora of misinformation. ... It calls into question my integrity, and our staff's, to say we're inflating rider numbers. There's no basis for it," said Thorne. "I'm ready to make the case for keeping our current budget and pushing off this possible rejection."
Crabill wants Connect Transit to look at other funding sources that might be out there including possibly increasing the city's contribution as well as using some of the new revenue from the state doubling its current 19-cent-per-gallon gas tax, beginning July 1.
The city contributes $1.2 million for Connect Transit's operations and capital expenses while Normal provides $878,000 annually. The system has a $13.7 million budget for the new fiscal year, including $8.8 million in state money.
Thorne said he's optimistic a working group assembled by the Connect Transit board will deliver useful recommendations this fall.
The system plans to cut the Olive route, which serves north Normal, and start four years of fare hikes on Oct. 1. Critics, including Citizens to Ensure Fair Transit, have said those changes hurt disabled riders who live near the Olive route and low-income riders who can't afford to pay more for vital transportation.