Longboat Key Vice Mayor Jim Brown, along with town officials, urged the Manatee County Commission Tuesday to reconsider slashing $285,000 in funds provided by the county to operate the Key’s trolley route, which offers a continuous loop of service from Anna Maria Island to downtown Sarasota.
At the commission meeting in Bradenton, Brown told the commission the county never tried to work with the town on the issue.
“We are asking for Manatee County to not discontinue this and agree to fund it until we can have a dialogue among the parties to work out a solution,” Brown said.
But Manatee County commissioners Carol Whitmore and John Chappie, both Anna Maria Island residents and frequent attendees at Longboat Key Town Commission meetings, weren’t keen on Brown’s suggestion.
Whitmore suggested the Longboat Key, Lido Key, St. Armands Key Chamber of Commerce should figure out a way to pay for the route and noted that the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce funds the free trolley service through $80,000 in advertising on the trolleys.
Whitmore also noted that ridership on the Longboat Key trolley in Manatee County currently hovers at less than 100 riders a day.
Brown responded by explaining the route needs more time to flourish and said that the town might consider contributing to the service.
“But I will say we contribute fairly heavily already through our taxes to Manatee County in the amount of $22 million to $25 million a year,” Brown said. “And we don’t ask you for police or fire services or to help us with our roads and utilities. But we do need a bus service.”
The comments irked both Whitmore and Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Donna Hayes, who said that Anna Maria Island residents account for 16% of the county’s budget and Lakewood Ranch residents contribute 12% of the county’s budget.
“The fact of the matter is we have a budget we need to meet by Oct. 1 and there is going to be a reduction in services,” Hayes said.
Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash showed some compassion for the trolley route, however, and urged the commission to continue paying for the route until January while a deal is worked out between the town and Sarasota County, which pays for two-thirds of the Key trolley’s cost, or roughly $700,000 per year.
Sarasota County Area Transit and Manatee County Area Transit have jointly operated the Longboat Key Trolley system since July 2008.
“There was probably more opportunity to have one-on-one dialogue with the town and we never did that,” McClash said.
Hayes immediately rejected the suggestion.
“We only have X amount of money,” said Hayes, noting that her constituents in East Manatee don’t have a dependable bus service.
Town Manager Bruce St. Denis tried to assuage concerns and noted that Sarasota County is willing to continue funding its portion of the service and will even consider extending its portion of the route further north if the route can be salvaged.
McClash again argued for the continuation of the route for the rest of the year, explaining it would cost approximately $80,000 for the county to keep it operational until then.
But the commission unanimously approved an amended motion offered by Chappie, which defers the county’s decision until its Thursday, Sept. 16 budget meeting.
The Sarasota County Commission, meanwhile, voted at its regular meeting Tuesday for a motion that calls for a meeting of Manatee County, Sarasota County and Longboat Key officials to further discuss the issue. Sarasota County also agreed to continue funding its portion of the route through Dec. 31, if Manatee County agrees to do so.
The Longboat Key Town Commission will hold a special meeting at 8 a.m. Thursday to discuss the trolley issue before attending a Manatee County budget workshop later that evening.
Manatee County commissioners, despite their criticism, also don’t want to see the trolley route dissolved, Whitmore said.
“There was a consensus by this board to support it in theory and we are leaning toward continuing the service,” Whitmore said.
But not every Longboat Key commissioner is fighting to keep the trolley route on the island.
At the Monday, Sept. 13 regular meeting, Longboat Key Commissioner Robert Siekmann said residents must realize that as taxpayers they are paying to support a $1 million bus route island-wide that’s losing money.
“The demand for this route just doesn’t exist,” Siekmann said. “If this route were run as a business, it would have been shut down two years ago.”
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