By Doug Hallett
A half-price bus pass for low-income people has got off to a good start since it went into effect July 1, city hall says. However, it could be on the chopping block when council votes on the city’s 2013 budget next month.
The program, described in a city staff report this week as “an investment in supporting people out of poverty,” is supposed to be tested for two years as a pilot program. However, it was identified last week as one of the things that council might have to cut if it wants to get the increase in the city’s base budget for 2013 down to the 3% target set by council in July.=
Cancelling the affordable bus pass program to save $271,000 in 2013 was one of the possibilities on the most drastic list of potential cuts presented to council at a Nov. 6 budget workshop. Also on the list of potential “major service adjustments” were such things as closing all of the city’s splash pads and wading pools and the outdoor Lyon Pool, increasing transit fares, and increasing recreation user fees by 4% instead of the originally planned 3%.
This most drastic list also included close to $1.1 million in cuts that weren’t unidentified in the budget workshop agenda material and were to be discussed by council behind closed doors.
Two separate lists of less drastic cuts were also presented at the workshop. They include such things as: eliminating Christmas tree pickup to save $22,000; eliminating residential sidewalk snow clearing to save $95,000; eliminating the twice-a-year yard waste collection to save $70,000 next year; and eliminating all civic events in city hall’s Market Square, except for John Galt Day and the mayor’s New Year levee, to save $29,000.It would take an additional $14.1 million in tax revenue in 2013 to maintain the current level of city services, which would amount to a 7.87% increase in the base budget, the budget material said last week. This base-budget increase doesn’t include proposed additional spending in 2013 on such things as city hall’s new information technology strategic plan.
Eliminating the affordable bus pass pilot program as part of the city’s 2013 operating budget would have a “drastic impact on low-income residents,” the budget material said.
A new staff report that went a meeting of council’s community and social services committee on Tuesday of this week, which is the first report on how the pilot program is working, gives a lot more detail.
It says 1,743 of the passes had been approved so far, which is roughly in line with the city’s projections. Eligibility for the new bus pass is determined by a Statistics Canada measure known as the “Low Income Cut-off,” which prescribes eligible income levels for families of various sizes.
Of these 1,743 passes, 1,134 went to new applicants. The other 609 went to bus users that were already subsidized before the new pilot program went into effect July 1 – namely, low-income people who are living with a disability.
When it approved 2012 funding for the pilot program, council decided not to cap the number of people who could get the passes, so long as they meet the income criteria.
The program is considered an investment in supporting people out of poverty in four ways, says the new staff report. They are:
• enabling more residents living with a limited income to purchase a monthly transit pass
• making a positive impact on the budgets of low-income residents by enabling them to allocate more of their budget to basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter
• improving perceptions of overall quality of life
• helping people to connect and contribute to their communities in ways such as getting to work and keeping a job; accessing educational, recreational, sporting and cultural opportunities; and maintaining connections to family and friends.
City staff have encountered some challenges in implementing the pilot program, the report says.
One is that recent immigrants are often not able to provide previous-year annualized income, as required in the application process, so they are not eligible for the half-price bus pass.
Another is that recently unemployed people are often not eligible, because their previous-year annualized income exceeds the prescribed level in the Low Income Cut-off table.
The third big challenge is the “sheer volume of applicants and related customer service” that’s required by the program, says the report. It suggests the affordable bus pass program may not be sustainable unless more resources are devoted to it.