McDonald Transit, the management company for Mobile’s WAVE bus system, will spend almost three-quarters of its $10 million budget this year on payroll and benefits.
Numbers provided by WAVE manager Tyrone Parker indicate the system will spend nearly $7 million on employees, or $4.3 million for payroll and another $2.6 million in benefits.
In a recent public hearing, city Finance Director Paul Wesch said the $5.3 million general fund transfer to WAVE had steadily increased over the last decade or so, which is why the city and the transit service were looking to cut routes running outside of the city limits.
In an email message Monday, Parker explained the benefits and pension contributions were among the reasons for the increase. He also listed property liability insurance coverage as another factor.
Payroll exceeds what the city contributes to WAVE, but Parker wrote that a portion of a $3 million Federal Transit Authority grant would pay the remainder.
“The Wave Transit, under FTA 5307 funding, is allowed to draw down eligible expenses for some employees’ work activities that qualify and meet the standard,” Parker wrote.
On April 12, the Mobile City Council voted to cut two routes through Prichard, one route to Chickasaw and another into West Mobile County. The remaining Prichard route, which ends near downtown, is a federally funded hub.
WAVE suggested the cuts after the Mobile City Council slashed more than $700,000 from the aforementioned general fund transfer, which exceeded $6 million at the time. The money cut from WAVE was in turn allocated to Visit Mobile, formerly the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, but also helped fund performance contracts for the Boys and Girls Clubs, Via! and other agencies. A portion of the funds was added to two council accounts.
Parker wrote that WAVE employed other cost-saving measures before making the decision to cut the routes, including freezing all staff positions, eliminating two vacant administrative positions and reducing insurance costs.
“After the review of all the line items, we began a review of our service to determine service reductions that would have the least impact on our customers,” he wrote. “In one case, we are saving costs by combining the downtown jury shuttle with the MODA service. In evaluating further reductions in service, we focused our efforts on the least productive service and the service outside the city limits of Mobile.”
Before the vote took place, Councilman C.J. Small questioned how WAVE could afford to buy radio airtime for advertisements if they were eliminating routes. The bus system budgeted $8,000 for advertising to be spent throughout the year. The first ad was in January to highlight WAVE’s Senior Bowl shuttle route.
The system also plans to spend money promoting Transit Awareness Day in July and the University of South Alabama “Jag” route from campus to Ladd-Peebles Stadium during the football season. After Thanksgiving, WAVE also plans to promote the “Stuff the Bus” toy drive.
The city is at least entertaining the idea of bringing the eliminated routes back, if the cities of Prichard and Chickasaw, or Mobile County wanted to participate in funding, Wesch wrote in an email last week.
“The city of Mobile does not wish to make demands that the county, Prichard or Chickasaw provide funding, but we would certainly work with them if they desire to participate in the funding of the WAVE,” he wrote. “We will engage with them all during the fiscal year 2017 budget preparations to determine their desires.”
Prichard Mayor Troy Ephriam said he would like Prichard to be able to budget funds next year to pay for the routes, if possible.
“It is my hope we could come up with a number that’s acceptable to put into the budget,” Ephriam said.
Wesch wrote that he was unsure how much money it would take from each city in order to reinstate the lost routes.
“It is hard to say what amount of participation would be required to restore service beyond saying that it would take something in the neighborhood of the $703,000 budget reduction in 2016 to return to where we were,” Wesch wrote. “However, that presupposes that those other jurisdictions would want service exactly as it was, which is highly unlikely. More likely is that any jurisdiction wishing to participate in 2017 would help determine where and during what hours they wish service. At that point, the management company could price the subsidy requirement.”
Meanwhile, Prichard may pursue its own FTA grant in order to restore service to previous levels, Ephriam said. The city might be able to budget a matching amount to obtain the grant.
Charging other municipalities for bus service is not unusual. In fact, the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority charges an hourly rate to municipalities for service. Interim Director Barbara Murdoch said the rate varies every year, but hovers around $60 to $80 per hour.
The authority, which was set up by a legislative act, serves 39 routes in 10 cities. The authority operates on a $30 million budget, with $7 million coming from federal grants, Murdoch said.