The fate of Hampden’s bus service could be in the hands of a soon-to-be-elected town councilor.
The town council voted Monday night 4-2 to recommend its revised municipal budget for final approval on June 18, which includes $106,352 for the Community Connector bus service. A public hearing on the budget will be held the same night, before the vote.
Funding the bus service, which shuttles riders throughout the greater Bangor area, has been a sticking point in the budget review process, with councilors split on whether to continue participating in the service.
Councilors Stephen Wilde and Mark Cormier voted Monday against the proposed budget, which includes funding for the bus system. Both, along with Councilor Terry McAvoy, previously voted to defund the public service at a preliminary budget hearing last month. McAvoy, however, opted to vote in favor of the budget at the June 4 meeting.
The funding was recommended by Town Manager Angus Jennings, despite the fact councilors were in disagreement over whether to cleave the town’s proposed contribution to the regional public transit system, which was up from about $90,000 last fiscal year.
The final approval of the budget will come just six days after a June 12 special election to elect a new town councilor.
If the council finds itself split on the issue again, “It certainly appears that the newly elected councilor will single-handedly determine whether Hampden will initiate tangible steps toward cutting that service,” Jennings said. “Their vote will essentially set the course for town budgeting and policy.”
Four candidates — Renee Clark, Andrew Colford, Eric Jarvi, and Shelby Wright — are vying to fill the open council seat left by Greg Sirois, who earlier this winter vacated his three-term that expires in December.
Two Hampden councilors, including Mayor Ivan McPike, agreed the council should reassess whether hourly buses are necessary and suggested bus runs in the morning and evening as a viable alternative.
McAvoy, who voted in favor of the budget Monday, and Cormier have been outspoken in their desire to cut funding of the bus system, while Wilde has suggested significantly pruning the service.
“There’s just way too many runs,” Wilde said in May. “It is an integral part of most communities, but maybe just not an integral part at the level that we have.”
The Community Connector’s 22 buses travel between Hampden, Bangor, Brewer, Veazie, Old Town and Orono. The bus service also connects those communities with the campuses of Husson University, the New England School of Communications, the University of Maine, Eastern Maine Community College and Beal College. 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 eliminate the service the year prior. The town’s share employs two full-time bus drivers who operate two buses for 6.5 hours each weekday, Community Connector Superintendent Laurie Linscott said.
Unlike other areas of the budget where town officials have the autonomy to recalibrate line item funding, modifying the public transportation budget lawfully requires public input, because it’s a public service and partially funded with federal dollars, Linscott said.
“We really can’t do that. We have a public process, that’s just what it is. By accepting federal funds, we’ve agreed to adopt the public process when there is a major service reduction or modification,” Linscott said.
Residents who’ve approached the council in the last month have been angry and frustrated.
“I’d like to challenge those who oppose the bus line to take a week and walk a mile in the shoes of those who need it,” Laura Peppard told councilors at their May 21 meeting.
“For those of us who don’t have that luxury, who are limited, the bus is their only option. These people have no other recourse for transportation for school, for their jobs,” Peppard said. “Please don’t discontinue the bus.”
One bus connects Hampden with the rest of the transit system, but its loss would have real effects on the rest of the fleet, Linscott said. By trimming even one bus, it affects the entire region’s ability to get future federal funding, which is decided using a formula-based system. That formula is based on miles traveled, hours of service each day and the number of people using the service.
Choosing not to honor the public process before the town cuts bus services could also open the town to potential lawsuits from residents who are unequally disenfranchised by the decision, Jennings said.
“I don’t see anything but the town getting itself in hot water if they do anything other than fund it for the whole year,” he said.
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