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Transit budget request nixed by county delegation

April 05, 2012
OSSIPEE — Despite winning support in towns throughout Carroll County, the area's new transit system could not win the funding support of the county delegation as they set the 2012 budget last week.

Drivers for the Carroll County Transit System, in buses known as Blue Loons, have been making their way around the county and getting passenger where they need to go. The first part of the system that was launched, known as the flex route system, has passengers calling a toll-free number 24 hours ahead of time to schedule their bus ride. The bus picks them up at their home and takes them directly to their destination in Carroll County, such as a doctor's appointment or to work. In addition to the flex route system, the program also recently launched its main bus line. Those buses travel Routes 16 and 28 between Conway and Wolfeboro throughout the day and also connect in West Ossipee to get passengers over to Laconia every day. Those buses make several stops and passengers have been using the main bus line to travel all over the county for many reasons including appointments, shopping, and visiting family. There is no advance phone call needed to ride the main bus line, passengers simply have to be at one of the many bus stops throughout the county when the bus rolls in.

With selectmen and budget committees mostly reluctant to put and money in their proposed 2012 budgets to help fund the Transit, voters instead submitted petitions asking their fellow voters to approve $3,000 in each town at their annual Town Meetings. When funding items are presented by petition, the item has to be put on the warrant. Selectmen and budget committees can add wording to indicate to voters whether or not they are in favor of the petitioned expense. In many cases this Town Meeting season, both boards indicated on the warrant they were not in favor.

According to Transit Director Beverly Raymond, the petitioned article won the favor of voters in 10 towns including Ossipee, Effingham, Freedom, Bartlett, and Wolfeboro. Conway voting does not happen until April and all 16 members of that budget committee voted against supporting the program despite, according to David Babson (R-Ossipee), there are more people using the buses in Conway than in any other town in the county.

The county delegation, made up of the 14 N.H. Representatives that are elected to serve the people of Carroll County, is in charge of approving the annual budget for Carroll County Government including the nursing home, jail, sheriff's department, and other services. Part of the budget is regional appropriations in which delegates decide which non-profit agencies to also make a donation to.

Raymond met with the delegation subcommittee and asked that $15,000 be added to the county budget for Carroll County Transit. Mark McConkey (R-Freedom) is chairman of that subcommittee and told the full delegation that his subcommittee voted to instead recommend $5,000 for the program.

Babson, who also serves on Ossipee's budget committee and voiced the same objection during that town's budget process, said the delegation should "hold back" and "wait and see" and not take the risk of funding the start-up transit program. He added that the county budget and the budget in his hometown shouldn't be supporting the program as voters in Conway shot it down last year. "Conway gets the most use. Why should the rest of the taxpayers pay for it?" he asked.

Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett) who is also a selectman in his town said it was decided "a long time ago" that if a non-profit asked for money from individual towns the delegation would not consider their funding request and on that note opposed the item being added into the county budget.

McConkey explained the towns were being asked to give money to help the program meet its grant match requirement for the federal funds being used to operate the door-to-door bus system but the county was being asked to give funds to support the main bus line – two different programs under the same agency.

"It was an effort of 20-plus years to get to this point because we are the only county (in the state) that doesn't have a fixed route. We finally got to this point," said McConkey, He said to "throw $15,000 into this is not the money best spent" but spending $5,000 is a good investment. Several delegates raised concerns about this being a start-up program and were opposed to making an investment now and what that might commit them to later when running the Transit gets more expensive, including replacing buses in a few years.

Frank McCarthy (R-Conway) said, "Who's going to have to pay the $450,000 to replace those buses in 2 or 3 three years. If there was a reason to do this without throwing money down the drain I would do this but it's just not there. It's a waste."

Joseph Fleck (R-Wakefield) agreed with Babson and McCarthy and added that maybe people could be given vouchers to take taxis instead of the county supporting a bus system though he did not say who would pay for the vouchers. "We may be far better off to pay people for a voucher or something else that it takes to transport them from one place to another. I'm not against doing something for people who cannot move around but this may be a lot more than we really have to do and there are other options out there," he said.

Harry Merrow (R-Ossipee) who also serves as a selectman in his town and spoke in favor of giving support to the program for a year as it gets established and re-evaluating that choice during the next budget cycle said, "There is not a public transport system in the country that doesn't need major government subsidies. Do we want to help these people or don't we?"

Laurie Pettengill (R-Bartlett) didn't raise concern about the cost of the program or whether or not her constituents need transportation but she did say she was "outraged" about the bus system. "When I was on my way to work the other day it was St Patrick's Day. The Blue Loon Bus was parked at Shannon Door Pub for St Patrick's Day at 5 o'clock at night. Now I think that for a taxpayer to see the Blue Loon Bus parked at Shannon Door Pub on St Patrick's Day is just…I know I was outraged. I don't know why it was there, I don't want to know why it was there. This is just the stuff people don't want to see"

In a phone interview, Raymond explained that while federal grants are being used to offset much of the cost of operating the Transit system, matching funds have to be raised. This is being done by Transit asking for matching funds from the towns and county government, businesses are purchasing advertising on the buses, other grants are being written, passengers are charged a sliding scale fee, other civic organizations have made donations to the program, and private groups can hire the buses for outings, such as the early evening trip to Shannon Door on St. Patrick's Day.

Public transportation is "just not needed," according to Norman Tregenza (R-Madison) getting people where they need to go should be left up to the communities and neighbors. "In Madison we give a ride to anybody who needs a ride…if they need to go to the hospital, to Hannaford to grocery shop, to visit a relative….there's a lady in Madison, Barbara, everybody knows her…they call her up and she has volunteers. Or they can call the church. Anybody in Madison, on our own as volunteers can get a ride where they need to go. That's the way to do it."

While the constituents in most of their towns have shown their support by voting for the Transit program, after lengthy conversation, the delegation voted 9-3 against supporting it. McConkey, Steve Schmidt (R-Wolfeboro), and Dino Scala (R-Wakefield) voted in favor of giving $5,000 to the fledgling program while Pettengill, Babson, McCarthy, Chris Ahlgren (R-Wolfeboro), Betsey Patten (R-Moultonborough), Fleck, Chandler, Tregenza, and Merrow all voted against it.

Raymond, who has been overseeing the Transit program in Coos County for about 30 years said work continues to help the public become better acquainted with the public transportation system and learning how it works. Work is currently underway to have official bus stop signs erected at the bus system's many stops throughout the county.

For more information on the bussing system and its schedules call Carroll County Transit at (603)752-1741 or toll-free at 1-866-752-6890 or visit the Transit website at http://www.tccap.org/nct_cct.htm.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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