SUN PHOTO/TOM VAUGHT
Soldiers on leave get off the trolley at Manatee County Beach. Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore wants the three Island cities to contribute $8,000 each and the county’s tourist development council to contribute $25,000 to keep trolley rides free for another year.
By Pat Copeland
sun staff writer
The Island trolley can remain free of charge for passengers if $50,000 can be raised by the three Island cities and the county’s Tourist Development Council.
Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said last week that her fellow commissioners agreed to the compromise that would prevent a $1 fee from being charged to trolley riders.
"I asked Holmes Beach Commissioner David Zaccagnino to talk to the mayors of the three cities about splitting $25,000 of the cost and I will ask the Manatee County Tourist Development Council (TDC) for the other $25,000," Whitmore said. "I have four weeks to get the money committed, and if I don’t, there will be a $1 per day charge."
County Commissioner Joe McClash said he saw Whitmore agonizing over the proposed trolley fee and made the 50/50 suggestion. As for the TDC, of which he is the chair, McClash explained, "The TDC only gives recommendations. I’ll take it to them, but ultimately, it is up to county commissioners to approve it. I have had no indication that it is unacceptable to them."
Whitmore said it costs about $500,000 per year in county funds and $500,000 per year in state grant funds to operate the trolley. McClash said Ralf Heseler, the county’s transit manager, and Fred Loveland, the county’s community services director, gave him the $50,000 figure.
"That’s what they expected the revenues to be if they collected $1 per day," McClash said. "It’s a conservative amount. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask the Island communities."
Zaccagnino said he spoke with all three mayors Thursday.
"They said they’d really look for the money. It crept up on us and it’s a terrible time to ask for money, but we need it. Their concern is that the county will want it every year."
McClash addressed that fear pointing out, "This is something to get us through this budget year. It gives us the opportunity to work out a better plan next year. I have some ideas about funding from strategies we developed to fund the trolley many years ago."
The mayors speak
Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford said on Thursday that she had written the backup for the request and would add it to the commission’s next budget work session.
"I’ll see if we can help for one year, but they should look to other revenue-generating sources next year," Barford said. "We can’t fund it as a recurring expense. The big thing for me is that transportation never operates in the black.
"I feel that Commissioner Whitmore articulated how well received the ridership is here. People are realizing that public transportation on the Island can work. People are using it, especially the young people. It’s good for them to get used to using public transportation."
Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger was more cautious.
"It’s up to the commission, but I think the TDC should pick up the whole tab and not take it from our local tax dollars. They’ve advertised it as a tourist attraction. It’s nice to have it free, but there’s no free lunch in the world."
Bohnenberger agreed with Barford that transportation systems are not profit-generating enterprises.
"No trolley system in the country operates on a fare box," he pointed out. "I don’t want to get involved in a long-term commitment to operate a bus service."
He also questioned the $50,000 figure.
"The thing that puzzles me about the request is that it takes $66 per hour to run the trolley" he said. "So how is $50,000 going to make much difference? It’s a token thing, but it won’t make a dent in the overall trolley budget."
Holmes Beach commissioners have canceled their Aug. 13 meeting and won’t have another meeting until Aug. 28, however, Chair Sandy Haas-Martens said she would not call a special meeting to address the request.
"We need more information, and I want to see what the TDC does." she said. "I can’t believe that $50,000 will make or break it. We’re already paying for the trolley with our tax dollars."
Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie discussed the request with his commissioners at their Thursday meeting and said, "They are willing to go along with $8,000. We’ll get a formal request for our next meeting and they can vote on it.
"A lot of people in our city use the trolley to go to work and it keeps thousands of vehicles off the road. I think we should go forward and do our share."
Zaccagino said if the three cities give $8,000 each that would leave $1,000 to make up the Island share of $25,000.
"I asked Don Schroder to ask the (Anna Maria Island) Chamber to donate $1,000," he said.
"The trolley is different from the rest of the transit system," McClash pointed out. "Alternative transportation is where people say they want to go, but to reduce the level of service and charge for it will reduce the ridership. To me, this is a big test. Do you want to put your money where your mouth is for alternative transportation?"