RTA board OKs contract employees, nixes building

       A strategy that will allow millions of dollars in contracts to be given out for Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) projects was approved by the RTA board at its meeting April 29.
       The votes included OKs of the debated concepts of hiring contract employees and using RTA money to purchase vehicles. Denied in the votes was Colorado Springs Public Works Director Ron Mitchell's proposal to build a “northern facility” that would have provided office and storage space for the city as well as the RTA.
       Still under discussion - postponed to the next meeting Wednesday, May 11 - is a request for $160,000 in RTA money to help market Springs Transit.
       The April 29 actions followed two meetings - the April 13 RTA board and the April 25 City Council - at which Mitchell had been scolded by elected officials for not explaining his proposals clearly enough.
       The city and RTA are both involved because City Public Works is responsible for most of the RTA projects. Having contract employees is necessary because current staff is insufficient to do the extra work alone and city expertise is needed in certain aspects (such as stoplight work), both council and the RTA board have been told. A 10-year summary, presented at the April 29 RTA meeting, showed that using contract employees would cost $26,462,000, as opposed to $50,198,000 to bid the work out to private entities.
       No RTA projects are planned on the Westside this year, although five bridges and various (as yet unannounced) streets are to receive maintenance. Based on the ballot measure approved by voters last November, The RTA is funded with a 1-percent sales tax; the estimated $65 million it will bring in annually will be split between projects (55 percent), transportation maintenance (35 percent) and transit (10 percent).
       The RTA meetings are held on the Westside, at the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments building, 15 S. Seventh St.
       Mitchell has claimed that the RTA board had previously approved the idea of contract employees as well as the facility. However, no elected officials could remember the part about a facility. Even the costs were not clear in everyone's minds: A figure of $1.3 million for the facility had been mentioned at the April 13 meeting, but it turns out that was just the first of three years and the total cost would be more than $4 million.
       Regarding the vehicles, a price had been shown at $530,000 April 13, but it will actually be $830,000 because not all cars were in that first total, Mitchell pointed out April 29.
       At the council meeting, council member Scott Hente complained that if the northern facility were approved for the RTA, “People will say, “ 'You lied to us'” in that the RTA was supposed to be about generating transportation improvements, not city buildings. City Manager Lorne Kramer took public umbrage at this comment, saying that the “lying” reference would have a chilling effect on future staff efforts to look for “innovative ways to put more asphalt on the street.”
       City Council/RTA member Jerry Heimlicher did not comment after Kramer spoke, but he said afterward the experience “makes me want to look at their (Public Works' city) budget a heckuva lot harder (for 2006). We need to be ever-vigilant, making sure every line item is needed.”
       Mitchell has said he will come back to City Council in next year's budget, to request the northern facility from that funding source.
       Heimlicher and Westsider/ County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who had also raised red flags over the Public Works strategy, joined the unanimous contract-related votes after the April 29 RTA meeting, at which the heads of separate divisions within Public Works provided detailed presentations of expenses and comparative cost analyses.
       The transit-marketing plan was discussed extensively April 29 before the RTA board decided to put it over to the May 11 meeting.
       When the plan first came out (at the April 13 RTA meeting), Mitchell had said $800,000 was needed, and the board balked at that as too high. Then, at council April 25 and the RTA April 29, Mitchell said that the RTA would actually only pay 20 percent ($160,000) of that amount, because a federal grant would pay the rest.
       Heimlicher believes that is an acceptable amount, because the system will be notably improved with RTA money and, as he put it, “we have to get the word out.” This supported the presentation by Sherre Ritenour, the city's Transit Services Division manager, who had told the board that a better bus system is not enough; the public has to be convinced to use it (“If you build it, they will not come.”)
       However, Heimlicher is unhappy about the way the information originally came forward. He said he wants to know why the RTA board had not been told about the grant at its April 13 meeting.
       Clark, along with Manitou Springs Mayor Marcy Morrison, opposed spending any money for transit marketing. “I understand you have to advertise what you have, but I'd like the bulk of the RTA money to go into the bus system,” Clark told Ritenour.

Westside Pioneer article