Iowa City proposes cuts to SEATS transit for elderly, disabled

Cuts would include eliminating Sunday service, discounted fares

Robert Coleman, a driver with Johnson County SEATS, helps Rachel Villhauer over some uneven concrete as he walks her to
Robert Coleman, a driver with Johnson County SEATS, helps Rachel Villhauer over some uneven concrete as he walks her to her door after driving her home Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Iowa City, Iowa. Villhauer uses the service to get to and from her work. Villhauer has been using the service for about 20 years. The program serves senior citizens and persons with disabilities who are unable to use regular bus service. (Jim Slosiarek/Gazette)

Iowa City is proposing cutting Sunday service and discounted fares from a public transit service for the elderly and people with disabilities.

The proposal is the latest in a months-long dispute between Iowa City, and also Coralville, and Johnson County over the SEATS program.

No Sunday service could hurt people with jobs, and the loss of discounted fares would affect low-income people, said Janelle Rettig, chairwoman of the county’s Board of Supervisors.

“As a resident, I’m concerned about Iowa City’s commitment to paratransit and how this will affect riders,” she said.

The cities and the county have been fighting over the costs of the program, which federal law requires Iowa City and Coralville to offer. The county runs SEATS under contract with the cities, with Coralville providing service to North Liberty.

The county supervisors say the county has been subsidizing the cities in the program, an argument the city officials disagree with.

The county is paying the cities $600,000 this fiscal year under a contract that expires June 30. The supervisors initially suggested reducing that amount to nothing in the coming years, but have since softened that stance.

The draft for a five-year contract sent by Iowa City to Johnson County this week stipulates that Iowa City receive $154,000 from the county in the fiscal year starting July 1, with that amount increasing up to 3 percent annually.

More likely to draw attention in the proposal is the lack of Sunday service and the reduced fares Iowa City residents are eligible for.

Chris O’Brien, director of transportation services for Iowa City, said that is the direction he got from the City Council earlier this month.

SEATS users have said they were concerned about reductions in services, including Sunday service.

Harry Olmstead of Iowa City uses a wheelchair and rides SEATS two to three times a week, including on Sundays. He also is eligible for discounted fares. The cuts would cause riders to miss church and also would force them to make tough decisions on how to spend their limited incomes, he said.

“Obviously, we’re going to end up giving up social activities,” said Olmstead, who is on the SEATS advisory committee and also is a member of Iowa City’s Human Rights Commission but said he was speaking on behalf of himself.

The city’s stance is driven by finances, O’Brien said, and would save the city about $200,000 a year.

“In the end, we have to make this a sustainable operation for the long term,” he said.

Rettig countered: “Iowa City should have been concerned about that for the last 20 years, too. But they didn’t seem to care about that as much when they didn’t have to pay the bills.”

Sunday service is not offered in the unincorporated areas, which the county oversees.

O’Brien described the proposed contract as something to get the basic language set and not a “hard-core” draft. But something needs to be before the City Council in June so a new contract is in place by July 1, he said.

Coralville has not discussed a SEATS contract yet and it will be up to the City Council to decide whether to propose any cuts in service, said Vicky Robrock, director of parking and transportation.With state lawmakers working on a plan to reduce commercial property taxes, Rettig said this may just be the start in cuts to a variety of programs. State officials have promised to give money to local governments to make up for the loss in property tax revenue, but many local government officials doubt that the state will provide enough funding.

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