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A year without full service too long, transit riders say
Pending Island Transit service reductions on South Whidbey will hit the community hard, and residents let department officials know it this week.
About 20 people showed up Thursday afternoon to the Freeland Library to share their concerns about hefty route cuts and modifications that will go into effect Sept. 1. The meeting was one of a series the transportation agency is holding on the upcoming service changes.
A meeting was also held Friday in Langley, but occurred after press time and could not be reported on.
The mood during Thursday’s meeting was courteous, but sentiments from the crowd were across the board, ranging from worry and concern to irritation and incredulity that the agency lacked the internal controls and oversight to allow such a fiscal emergency to occur.
Many wanted to know more details about the financial crisis, but were left disappointed. The meeting was run by operational staff only — Director Martha Rose was not present — and they said they simply didn’t have all the details. The sheer magnitude of the problem wasn’t made clear to staff until June, they said.
Gordon Labuhn, a Langley man, said he’d held leadership roles at small corporations for 30 years and was “astounded” by their claims of being blind to the problem until it was too late.
“No matter what position I had, I always knew the budgets of every other department,” Labuhn said.
Last month, Island Transit leaders announced the transportation service was is in the grips of a dire financial crisis, and that the board of directors had approved what was essentially an $800,000 bank loan to pay its bills. To stay afloat, the agency would have to layoff 20 percent of its workforce — 24 workers — stop Saturday bus service, eliminate a number of routes and modify several others.
Rose blamed former financial manager Barbara Savary for the problem, saying she’d failed to run monthly cash flow analysis reports for years. Savary was fired in May.
Several people at the Freeland meeting asked why Rose, or other financial administrators, were not present to answer financial questions.
“Where’s the leadership?” an unidentified woman asked.
According to Shawn Harris, operations manager for Island Transit, it was a conscious decision to staff the community meetings with operational staff only. The purpose was to get feedback from the public about the service changes, and attendance by leading agency officials would be a distraction.
“It’s just two different meetings,” said Harris, adding that just such a gathering will likely happen at some point.
The transit leaders did get plenty of feedback. Whidbey Watershed Stewards Education Coordinator Lori O’Brien, who attended with other organization leaders, voiced concern over the loss of service on Maxwelton Road. Thousands of students use it every year to get to the group’s Outdoor Classroom.
“It’s a huge loss for the kids,” she said.
Others worried about the impacts on paratransit services, and those who need bus service because of physical disabilities. Gary Bluhm, a Langley resident, is legally blind and regularly relies on public transportation. He said the cuts could have been more evenly distributed throughout the system, that he pays taxes like Oak Harbor residents but will be without service for at least one year. He urged the agency to find funding needed to restore the eliminated routes.
“Go find the money,” Bluhm said. “It’s out there, go find it.”
Island Transit staff at the meeting all expressed personal heartache over the cuts, and acknowledged that the organization has a tough job ahead.
“We’ve definitely lost a trust and we’re going to work as hard as we can to earn that back,” Harris said. “Hopefully we can get past what has to happen right now.”