County Board favors helping cover lag in grant funding
BY KEVIN BONESKE
After nearly a half hour of discussion, the Oneida County Board decided at its meeting Tuesday to provide the Oneida-Vilas Transit Commission a one-time, interest-free $50,000 advance to help with the commission’s cash flow as it awaits the receipt of grant funding.
“This is a resolution that will give operating monies to the Transit Commission, because what’s been happening as is typical with state and federal government, sometime monies don’t come in on time,” said supervisor Bob Mott. “At certain times during the year, we’re running a shortage of money for operating expenses to pay our drivers, to pay for gas, to pay for those types of things.”
Since the Transit Commission took over bussing transportation services that had previously been handled by the county’s department on aging, Mott noted the passenger base has expanded from the elderly and disabled to now include individuals who are not in those two categories.
“We saw a need in Oneida and Vilas County to expand it to all citizens,” he said. “So we actually began offering rides in May for all citizens.”
Mott made reference to the Transit Commission’s figures for one-way bus rides when he noted the monthly number of rides in the Rhinelander area alone expanded last year from 588 in April to 2,062 in December.
“There was obviously a pent-up demand for rural transportation, and that’s what the Oneida-Vilas Transit Commission is providing right now,” he said. “The problem is that with all start-up groups, we don’t have a general fund.
“We don’t have something to carry us from the time that one state aid comes in or one federal aid comes in to the next one. The state has been fairly good at providing the monies on time, the federal government has not, and it takes both of those for us to operate efficiently.”
Mott said the money is an advance, not a loan, but would be paid back on demand by the county and reviewed annually. He also noted a cash advance is being sought from Vilas County.
Transit Commission manager Jim Altenburg also spoke before the County Board regarding the advance.
Altenburg noted that while the Transit Commission is going through the cash flow situation because of the newer operation, the commission’s budget is expanding from $455,000 in 2016 to a projected $635,000 in 2017.
“We’re not shrinking by any means,” he said. “The problem is, with our fourth-quarter returns that I’m submitting (Tuesday), we have to wait for a $92,000 federal check to come in. Now, it should arrive mid-February, but if it arrives mid-March – like it’s been doing – we get into that cash-flow crunch.”
Altenburg said the Transit Commission ridership has “gone through the roof” and he expects it to increase in the Rhinelander area by another 10-15 percent and in Eagle River and Minocqua by another 35 percent by the end of 2017.
“We’ll be hitting a plateau of almost 40,000 rides per year,” he said.
Altenburg said the Transit Commission receives about $126,000 in Oneida County department on aging funds and, coupled with funding from Vilas County, the two counties provide $208,000 of the commission’s total budget in 2017.
“Your current budget, if it was under the department on aging, you’d only have that fixed amount to work with,” he said. “We’ve been able to amp up everything, to all of our people, and give them this quadruple (amount of) service for that kind of money.”
Supervisor Jack Sorensen asked about what would happen to the Transit Commission if the federal program to fund it would go away, to which Mott replied, “Well, I would guess that the Transit Commission would go away.”
Altenburg said he doesn’t believe the federal program from which the Transit Commission receives its funding will be discontinuing any time soon.
“There is nothing in the wind of any kind of problems with our program going forward,” he said. “In fact, the rural transit part is a big push. (The federal government is) actually tightening up the budget on the big municipalities, because they realize the demand for our rural areas.”
Given the high percentage of senior citizens locally with people retiring in Oneida and Vilas County, Altenburg said “there is a huge need and necessity here to help us.”
Much of the County Board’s discussion related to whether the Transit Commission should be charged interest for the advance, based on the past practices of loaning money to county departments. However, given how low the current interest rates are and the expense involved to maintain an account that would earn little interest, supervisors didn’t include that as part of the resolution.