Johnson County SEATS program hangs in the balance

Budget discussions could affect 35-year service for elderly, mentally ill

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A Johnson County-funded para-transit service could face big changes or elimination in coming months as representatives with Iowa City and Coralville work to determine whether they will enter an agreement with the county to take on their portion of the costs.

Though the Johnson County Board of Supervisors has subsidized Iowa City and Coralville's portion of the cost  for the SEATS program for the last several years, Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan said Wednesday that  the program has become too expensive for the county to continue to take on alone.

The SEATS program, which has been around for 35 years,  provides door-to-door transportation for the elderly, people with disabilities, or people who otherwise cannot use the regular bus services in Iowa City, Coralville and University Heights. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, all cities with a fixed transit system — such as Iowa City and Coralville — are required to provide  some form transportation for people who can't use a fixed busing service.

"For the last several years we have been subsidizing each city through our contract which is getting close to expiring," Sullivan said, adding tax increment financing  has contributed to a hole in the county's budget . "We have been subsidizing them, in the case of Iowa City, several hundred thousand dollars a year, and in the case of Coralville, about $100,000 dollars a year and we just can't afford to do that anymore."

Iowa City Manager Tom Markus has said he wants Iowa City to stop subsidizing other towns and the county for services it provides. For example, the city has made surrounding communities pay what it considers their fair share toward the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center. That upset some officials last year, and some towns, including North Liberty, contracted with another shelter.

Johnson County SEATS Director Tom Brase said the program will need at least $2.4 million in fiscal year 2014 in order to maintain the service it is already providing. In order to defer some of those costs,  the county has proposed that Coralville and Iowa City begin to take on their portion of the costs as part of a three year plan. Sullivan said the county has offered  to subsidize Iowa City $100,000 and Coralville $30,000 in the first year, $50,000 and $15,000 in the second year, and no subsidies in the third year to ease each city into taking on their portion of the costs.

If the cities do not enter an agreement to take on those expenses, they have the option to  organize their own paratransit program, or enter into an agreement with a private contractor in order to meet their para-transit requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the meantime, Brase is working with each city to help them determine a number of ways to lower their costs in hopes of keeping the entire program under one roof as costs continue to rise with a growing population, rising gas prices, and increased ridership. Those options include increasing transit fares, discontinuing Sunday Service and limiting para-transit service to people who live within  3/4 of a mile of a fixed route, which is the minimum requirement under the law.

"We definitely, number one, want to provide that service because it's very very important," said Brase. "It's a way that people get to the doctors office, it's the way people get to the grocery store -- for some people that's the only way they're going to get those services."

Though representatives with both cities said it's too early to determine exactly what they will decide, Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said Coralville will race it's transit fees to $1 in fiscal year 2014 and consider discontinuing Sunday Service. Iowa City Transit Director Chris O'Brien said the city is still considering all of its options, but acknowledged that the city has been pleased SEATS. City leaders said they hope to have the issue worked out within the next three or four weeks.

Meanwhile, users of the service like 64-year-old Ellen Haman — who uses the program because she is half blind and partially paralyzed from an accident —  are hopeful SEATS program will remain in place.

"Once in awhile I have seizures and sometimes the SEATS bus has to come get me and take me home because I'm not able to function," Haman said. "If SEATS weren't here, I wouldn't be able to go out, I would have to stay home a whole lot, and that's very depressing."


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