Kenner asks more bus funds

Kenner and Jefferson Parish officials are trying to hammer out a new agreement for how the parish funds public transportation in the city after several local officials have raised concerns that Kenner isn’t getting its fair share.

Politicians have been discussing the issue for weeks, but Councilmen Gregory Carroll and Joseph Stagni raised it again last week, when they complained about the paltry payment the parish provides Kenner, despite the substantial sum the city generates for the transportation department. Jefferson Parish has a 2-mill property tax dedicated to funding transportation, and Kenner generates between $800,000 and $850,000 annually through that tax. However, in recent years, the city received slightly more than $50,000 from the parish for transportation.

Stagni and Carroll both called that blatantly unfair, with Carroll adding that Kenner is one of the state’s major cities and deserves better. He said it doesn’t make sense that city officials have had to depend on federal grants, or last-minute deals worked out with the parish to pay for the main bus line in Kenner.

“The numbers are important,” Carroll said. “We’re only asking for what’s fair for us.”

Kenner has a unique relationship with Jefferson Parish when it comes to public transportation due to a verbal agreement worked out between parish and city politicians roughly 20 years ago, said Sharon Leaber, the city’s transportation consultant.

At that time, parish politicians sought a millage to pay for a new parish-run transit system, and rejected a plan by the Regional Transit Authority to establish a truly regional system run by that agency. However, Kenner officials decide to sign up with the RTA, noting that it was cheaper and offered the city new buses, she said.

Although the parish has three lines that enter Kenner along major thoroughfares, the Kenner Loop provides the main service within the city and is operated by the RTA.

Parish and city politicians agreed that it was only fair that Kenner receive a payment from the parish since Kenner residents would pay the new millage, but they never put the deal in writing. The parish ultimately devised a formula based on ridership and revenues, and that money is combined with state funding, fares collected and some federal maintenance dollars. It costs the city about $400,000 to operate the Kenner Loop.

At times the parish formula has generated as much as $180,000, but since Hurricane Katrina, the parish’s payments have decreased drastically. Kenner faced a $200,000 shortfall in recent years, and service was only maintained thanks to a federal grant. Leaber said the city needs a more permanent solution.

“The city is in a much less favorable financial position than they used to be,” she said. “We have no place to cut. We either come up with the money, or we shut down.”

Stagni and Jefferson Parish Council E. Ben Zahn III said it’s a simple matter of the parish paying Kenner properly. Zahn, who worked with Councilman Mark Spears to get the city get more funding for 2013, said some parish officials might argue that the parish is paying Kenner correctly based on the accepted formula. But he bashed that system as outdated. He wants half of the money collected in Kenner sent back to the city. That plan has been endorsed by the group Citizens for a Better Kenner, and Stagni said there is an obvious imbalance.

“We need more equity” Stagni said.

Jefferson Parish Transit Director Ryan Brown said his office is conducting a study on Kenner’s transit system to look into all of the parish’s options, including the possibility of folding Kenner into the parish’s transit system instead of having a separate agreement with RTA. Kenner is the only Jefferson Parish municipality that has a separate transit agreement, he said. Leaber said Kenner is conducting its own independent analysis of the system.

Brown admitted that Kenner’s payments are lower but said its ridership is much lower as well. Unfortunately, the costs of providing transit service are increasing nationwide, he said. Brown expects to present a plan to Parish President John Young early next year on how the city and parish should proceed.

“We have to look at a whole lot of things,” Brown said. “We’re in the planning stages of looking at this whole Kenner issue.”