Johnson County, cities, move closer to negotiating SEATS funding

Changes to service expected

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Officials with the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and the cities of Coralville, North Liberty and Iowa City are one step closer to negotiating a deal that would continue some funding to a program that provides paratransit service throughout Johnson County.

Though the level of service is likely to see some changes because the total $ 2.47 million cost of the program can not be paid in full even with a deal between the cities and the county all entities made clear they have no intention to end the SEATS service during a meeting Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting came after months of disagreement over what each entity could afford and was willing to put forth. Before fiscal year 2014, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors had subsidized Iowa City and Coralville's portion of the cost for the SEATS program. Now, supervisors say the program has become too expensive for the county to fund on it's own largely due, they say, to gaps in county income from each city using tax increment financing.

Before Wednesday's meeting, the mayors from all three cities involved requested $305,000 in county funding to help with the costs of the program. At this point, the county has only allocated $130,000 to cover the three cities paratransit service in FY 2014, though Supervisor Janelle Rettig said some board members are willing to negotiate to put somewhere between $130,000 an $200,000 towards the program.

At the close of the meeting, leaders with the cities and the Board of Supervisors agreed that they would try to discuss a compromise of providing a minimum of a three year term to phase out the county paying for the cities' portion of the program, allocating $200,000 each year with a 3 percent cap on that amount. That means that that $200,000 the county could plan to allocate could not go up more than 3 percent each year they continue to put money towards the SEATS program. These parameters would only be put in place if the board of supervisors agrees to allocate that amount of money.

"There is potential of less money going into the program, and part of that is from the county, certainly part of that is from the cities," said Superisor Terry Neuzil during the meeting. "What our job is is to take information, relay that there is a willingness from the Board of Supervisors to move from where we started, and we're going to see what happens."

Though there was also previously talk about the county dipping into it's reserves to help put more money toward the cost, a fire at the Johnson County Secondary Roads Department building Monday evening, which is estimated to have caused at least $2 million in damage, will likely need a large chunk of reserve money in order to be repaired.

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek also said that Iowa City would likely take on the maintenance of all the paratransit buses they own as a way to cut costs. Hayek also said that Sunday service may need to be phased out in order to cut costs, and the city was looking toward whether money could be saved through ending door to door service in some cases.

Though members of the public did not have an opportunity to comment during the meeting, many SEATS users and their families who filled the Coralville City Council Chambers during the meeting stuck around afterwards to speak with their representatives about the importance of the program.

Sixty-year-old Terry Cunningham, who works at the University of Iowa and said he uses some for of paratransit at least four times a week, said he felt that the outcome of the discussion, was positive.

"I think it was very positive that they were able to at least come up with a plan between the various boards and committees to be able to continue the service," Cunningham said. "I think everybody who uses SEATs is concerned about how the changes are going to impact service overall, but also how changes are going to specifically effect their service, so you know hopefully things will be able to operate as close to they way it does now as possible."

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors is slated to discuss the results of the SEATS discussion during an informal meeting on Thursday. It was not immediately clear when the issue would be discussed by each city council.

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