Hampden town councilors are considering cutting a portion of the town’s public transit service, because they say not enough residents use it to justify the expense.
“Can we make that number zero? I’d like to see that number be zero. I think we should not have the bus,” Councilor Mark Cormier said at a Wednesday night budget meeting, referring to the proposed $106,000 to fund Hampden’s share of the Community Connector next fiscal year. Hampden allocated about $90,000 for its bus service for the 2018 fiscal year.
The Community Connector travels between Hampden, Bangor, Brewer, Veazie, Old Town and Orono. In Hampden, the bus runs from 6:15 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. Monday through Friday. In 2015, Hampden cut its $28,000-a-year Saturday bus service, after an unsuccessful attempt to cut the service the year before. The town’s share employs two full-time bus drivers who operate two buses for 6.5 hours each day, Community Connector Superintendent Laurie Linscott said.
While the final budget vote isn’t until June, the council was evenly divided Wednesday night on whether to fully fund the transportation service. Councilor David Ryder and Mayor Ivan McPike voted in favor of funding it, but suggested reassessing whether hourly buses are necessary, and maybe replace the schedule with runs in the morning and evening.
Councilor Dennis Marble, who was not able to attend the meeting, wrote in an email that he is also in favor of continuing funding the bus.
“A town is more than roads and emergency services, it’s also about services and education and public transportation and sharing some of what we have with those who do not,” Marble wrote in the email.
Three councilors — Cormier, Terry McAvoy and Stephen Wilde — voted against recommending the town fund the bus service at its current level. Cormier and McAvoy suggested the service be cut entirely.
“There’s just way too many runs,” Wilde said. “It is an integral part of most communities, but maybe just not an integral part at the level that we have.”
Hampden residents fired back, explaining that trimming the transit service even slightly would have substantial effects on those who use it.
Beyond providing transportation to jobs, the bus service allows people to travel to grocery stores, healthcare providers, and nearby colleges and universities, resident Jane Jarvi said.
“Many who utilize Bangor Area Transportation are considered marginalized, either by income, level or age,” she said. “Don’t demonize them as the problem but continue to provide them the ability to maintain a level of independence and access to basic necessities.”
Resident Keith Howard, who doesn’t drive, told councilors he rides the bus each day to Shaw’s Supermarket in Bangor.
“I think if you don’t have people in your life that are so totally dependant on public transit, you can’t understand what it means to them, their self esteem, their independence, their ability to survive life with any grace,” resident Mary Poulin said. “Public transportation isn’t just a bus, it’s a way of life for people who have no other choices.”
To opposing councilors, it’s simply a matter of saving money.
“I hope the council doesn’t think we’re not sympathetic … but the fact of the matter is this council [faces] a budget increase,” Wilde said. “There are some hard decisions that need to be made. This is one of the ones we’re going to have to take a look at really, really close.”
But choosing to defund the town’s bus service requires public input, since it’s a public service, Linscott, the bus superintendent, said.
“Reducing Hampden service would be substantial reduction in service. You can’t decide to do it without letting the public have a say,” she said.
Complicating matters, a special election on June 12 will lead to the appointment of a new councilor to fill the seat of Greg Sirois, who resigned in March. Less than a week after the election, on June 18, the council will vote on the budget. If the council remains divided, the newest councilor could cast the deciding vote, Town Manager Angus Jennings said.
“It certainly appears that the newly-elected councilor will single-handedly determine whether Hampden will initiate the first tangible steps toward cutting that service,” Jennings said.
The next budget meeting in Hampden is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Monday.
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