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Mansfield, Richland County leaders entertain idea of increased public transit funding, operations

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Mansfield, Richland County leaders entertain idea of increased public transit funding, operations

EDITOR'S NOTE: This marks the fourth day in a series of stories that examine the issues surrounding public transportation in Richland County.

MANSFIELD -- Voices are growing among those -- both inside and outside city government -- who think it's time for the City of Mansfield to contribute more to public transportation.

As the Richland County Transit Board prepares to launch a new strategic planning effort in 2022, the timing may be right for changes to the system -- and how the effort is funded.

Currently, the City of Mansfield spends no general fund revenue on public transit, despite the fact the vast majority of RCT riders are city residents.

Instead, the city allocates only between $65,000 and $70,000 annually to RCT from its federal Community Development Block Grant funds, which can be used to match certain federal funds.

Richland County commissioners, who also traditionally allocate block grant funds to RCT, have again budgeted an additional $70,000 from their general fund for the transit agency.

Richland County Regional Planning Commission

Richland County Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Jotika Shetty leads an organization that plays a key role in advising and assisting the RCT Board.

She said it's time for the city to up its game -- and its contribution.

"Mansfield funding RCT through general fund revenues will be extremely helpful to RCT operations," Shetty said. "The (Federal Transit Administration) grants require a 50 percent local match for operating expenses and a 20 percent local match for planning and capital expenses.

shetty

Jotika Shetty, executive director of the Richland County Regional Planning Commission, speaks to county commissioners in 2019. (Richland Source file photo)

Shetty said RCT has to generate local dollars from local governments, agencies or contracts with social service agencies.

"General revenue dollars are the most flexible and allow RCT to utilize them for FTA match for any required program expense," she said.

"Having the flexibility to be assured of a steady funding source that is not affected by ridership levels and is flexible will allow RCT to budget knowing it will have the required local dollars to draw down its allocated federal grant or apply for competitive grants that have a match requirement," Shetty said.

She said the city's CDBG allocation is "very appreciated," but limits its usage as a funding-source multiplier.

"CDBG dollars can only be used as a match for residents of Mansfield on the paratransit service. It cannot be used for fixed-service operations or capital. During COVID, when ridership levels fell due to health concerns, RCT was not able to leverage its full CDBG-allocated dollars," Shetty said.

Mansfield City Council

Stephanie Zader, who retained her At-large seat on Mansfield City Council in November for another four-year term, agreed the city needs to contribute more.

"I absolutely believe that the City of Mansfield should support services that are necessary for our citizens. As for where that money comes from, that would be a conversation I would need to have with the finance director," Zader said.

Stephanie Zader

Stephanie Zader, Mansfield City Council At-large

The councilwoman said last week she would like to see changes result from RCT's transit development plan and would like to be involved in the transit development planning effort.

"I have said for years that RCT needs expanded hours. I would love to see the hours expanded and partnerships formed with local employers. This partnership could be subsidized by the employers, deducted from employee pay, etc. We have employers hiring all around our city and I believe this would help relieve some of that need," she said.

Zader said she would love to see RCT begin the conversion to electric buses.

"This would both be better for the environment and solar panels could be installed to help subsidize the cost of electric for the busses. It would be great to see RCT look into grant funding for this and see if it is something that is possible," she said.

Rev. EL Akuchie, elected to represent the 3rd Ward starting in January, said last week he would be interested in securing more funds for RCT -- with a caveat.

"Regarding general fund money, I would want to be sure our city departments are taken care of first, and if there is money left over, we can look at RCT," Akuchie said.

Akuchie

Rev. Eleazer Akuchie, Mansfield City Council 3rd Ward representative

"I would not want to see the city fund RCT at the expense of safety, repairing potholes, enforcing codes issues, etc. CDBG, on the other hand, is restricted money that can't be used for many city services, but can be used for RCT -- so it's certainly a good use of that money," Akuchie said.

The newly elected councilman said local lawmakers should have a voice in changes to the system if they provide more funding.

"It needs to be tied to additional services they will provide, as requested by the community," Akuchie said. "Expanding hours to include nights and weekends would be good," adding the strategic planning process will help prioritize areas of need.

Aurelio Diaz, who will be the new 5th Ward councilman in January, is a member of the RCT Board and will help with the strategic planning process. During the campaign, Diaz said he supports the idea of evening and weekend bus service, especially for second- and third-shift workers.

Aurelio Diaz

Aurelio Diaz, Mansfield City Council 5th Ward representative

"We have talked about the possibility of using smaller vehicles, which might make more sense, for after-hours service and weekends," he said this fall. "Nothing has been decided. We are always looking for ways to be more progressive. Last year was tough on RCT due to the pandemic ... more people stayed at home and worked from home."

Laura Burns, who retained her 1st Ward seat in November, said during the campaign she also supports expanded RCT services.

Laura Burns

Laura Burns, Mansfield City Council 1st Ward representative

"They could bring so much more to the people in our town," Burns said. "We have people who don't have cars, or families that only have one car, and they are limited in getting to work. How are we supposed to grow as a community if people cannot get to work?"

Mayor Tim Theaker

Midway through his third and final four-year term in office, Theaker didn't sound as anxious to spend more money on transit. There are no general fund dollars in the 2022 temporary budget for RCT.

"In today's environment, every organization is in need of additional funds to balance their spending with revenues, including the city," Theaker said.

Tim Theaker

Mansfield Mayor Tim Theaker 

"I think RCT provides a valued service for the citizens of Mansfield and the surrounding communities and that is why we have worked hard to provide $70,000 from CDBG," he said.

"Maybe, after the end of (2021), we can review the carryover dollars and determine what additional funds we can afford and add into the final budget," the mayor said.

"My main objective is to not go back into fiscal emergency as we were when I was first elected."

Richland County commissioners

Commissioner Tony Vero said transit officials in the past have looked at evening and weekend service. The RCT Board is appointed by the three county commissioners.

"It's been the experience that the ridership just isn't there (in the past)," Vero said. "It's not as simple as running more routes and getting more riders.

"Our transit system is quite remarkable for a county our size. Not many communities our size have a fixed-route system. This is not a metropolitan area with nearly a million people like Columbus," Vero said.

Tony Vero

Richland County Commissioner Tony Vero

"The answer (with regards to more funding) is potentially yes. We just hired a county administrator who, as a part of his job, is to help secure grant funding. 

"I understand it's a county transit system. (But) the location it most benefits is the City of Mansfield. I believe there could be some partnerships," Vero said.

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"