By Matt Loffman, C2M Contributer

At a community forum and special meeting of the Fairfax City Council on Tuesday, Mayor Robert F. Lederer said that the budget for fiscal year 2011 is the “most difficult budget” he has ever seen. Fairfax, he said, is facing an $11 million deficit.

Despite his assertion that “no decisions have been made” concerning where to make budget cuts, Fairfax residents and George Mason University students came to the meeting to support the continuation of CUE bus service. Many had heard about possible cutbacks or eliminations of service from notices posted in city buses, which the mayor later dismissed as “misguided fear[s].”

The city is only in the initial stages of budget negotiations and has not made any final decisions. The final vote to authorize the 2011 budget is scheduled for April 29 after two more public input sessions.

Last week, City Manager Robert Sisson proposed his budget, which called for a CUE bus fare increase from $1.45 to $1.60. This hike would bring CUE prices more in line with Metro bus rates and would be on top of the previously announced rate increase, effective April 1, that raises the rate from $1.35 to $1.45.

There was no mention in the proposed budget of charging Mason students to ride buses. Mason students and faculty currently ride for free.

The budget also mentioned that the council is considering “potential service modifications,” but did not give any further details.

Where the Service Stands
Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council was an opportunity for community members to weigh in on the budget shortfall and to advise the council about how and where to make cuts.

Nearly 70 community members attended. Of the 22 people who addressed the council, 17 discussed rumored changes to and elimination of CUE bus service.

But before anyone could lobby the council, Lederer made it clear that he thinks the CUE bus system is an “important service that has been long-serving in our community.”

The mayor told citizens that no discussion of service elimination and no discussion “to my knowledge” of rush hour service cutbacks have taken place. He acknowledged, however, that some adjustments and limited service changes may be necessary, but that the council had not discussed any specifics about how to address the budget problems. He also said that nothing is off the table and every area of city government should be scrutinized and considered.

Currently, the Fairfax city government provides $1 million in yearly subsidies to keep CUE buses running. George Mason University provides an additional $300,000 that allows the Mason community to ride for free. The rest of CUE’s budget is raised through advertisements and rider fares.

‘An Important Service’
Among those present at the meeting was a CUE bus driver who has worked for the service since 1995. The driver, who asked not to be identified, spoke to Connect2Mason after the initial public feedback portion of the meeting.

She said that being at the meeting to represent the drivers was important. When asked which of the proposed cuts to CUE bus services would face the least opposition from her and other drivers if service cuts were absolutely necessary, she said that all the current CUE routes and schedules are needed and that the CUE bus provides an important service.
Mason student Lauren Brown also attended the meeting and said that the CUE bus helps with the “development of the community.”

As a student who lives off-campus and has a job on the weekend, Brown says she needs weekend bus service and that cutting service would be a “step backward.”

She pointed to CUE’s meaning as the City-University-Energysaver as proof of the service’s importance in Fairfax and at Mason.

Ian Fairclough, a Mason librarian who moved to Fairfax after losing his job in Ohio, applauded the “excellent public transportation in Fairfax” and said that he rides CUE several times a day – often just to increase the ridership count of the bus system.

He told the council to only consider changes to the weekend bus schedule, but he was also in favor of having Mason faculty and students pay to use CUE. He encouraged the council to work with Mason administration to develop a stop of the Mason to Metro Shuttle at Fairfax Circle to help alleviate some of the stresses on CUE buses. He said that the council should work to bring CUE “more into harmony” with the Mason to Metro Shuttle.

Another Mason faculty member weighed in during the meeting as well. Mason math instructor Karen Crossin, who was a student at Mason in the 1980’s, praised CUE as her “personal limousine.” She said that many people move to Fairfax for the public services provided by the city. She’s glad that CUE is not on a 9-5 schedule because that doesn’t fit her lifestyle.

Crossin added that she’d be ok with tax hikes to avoid cuts in service because she appreciates the “environmentally friendly” buses and the “small town” feel provided by the friendly bus drivers.

Several people who spoke in support of the CUE buses received applause from the audience members, and many of the people who came to support the CUE buses said they had no other means of transportation. One woman reminded the council that many people who ride the bus regularly couldn’t make it to the meeting to say so.

Her point that many citizens use the bus service as an alternative to personal vehicles seemed particularly ironic considering that the room where the City Council held its forum is the same room that Fairfax City convenes traffic court for people cited for speeding and other traffic violations.

After Public Input, Fiscal Shortfall and ‘Disinformation’
Most of the people who came to support the CUE bus service left after the initial public input portion of the meeting. Only about 20 people remained for the full meeting of the City Council. The issue of cuts to CUE service was addressed about an hour later when the Council began a budget work session. They returned to the looming fiscal shortfall, and they began to discuss ways to raise revenues or cut city services.

Lederer reiterated that nothing should be off the table when considering cuts, and he said that councilmembers should put aside their “pet projects.” In his view, the council has two ways to consider fixes for the deficit: live within current revenues by cutting city services or maintain current service levels by raising taxes.

Even after all the possible cuts have been made, tax increases are still possible, he added.

“If and when that reality exists, I for one will be willing to put my name to that increase if the process is followed correctly,” Lederer said.

In possibly his most aggressive defense of the budget process, Lederer addressed the “most sensitive and … the most concerning” issue that involves city employees spreading misinformation about the budget cuts. Without singling out CUE bus employees, Lederer suggested that city employees performed a “disservice to the community.”

“In most cases, the information received by the citizens was based on misguided fear that we were going to eliminate either entirely the CUE bus system or essential, dramatic parts of the transportation footprint,” Lederer said.

“As a long-time supporter of the CUE bus service, I find it personally insulting to have my position and that of my colleagues misrepresented in this community,” Lederer continued. “When an employee comes to work for this city, they automatically assume a well-deserved trust in this community, and their viewpoints and expressions of concerns are assumed within the community to be based on fact and not on unjustified fears or misrepresentation. Anything less is a disservice to this community. It is disrespectful to this body, and it is just plain wrong. This is a practice that must be stopped and it must be stopped now.”

He defended the budget discussions to date as “open and fair” and said that working for this city should be a “privilege” not a “right.”

Lederer encouraged the council to “come together” to “find a consensus” and “meet the objectives of the overall community” on the “testing” and “difficult” issue of the budget.

Councilmember Jeffrey Greenfield, a commissioner with the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and a Mason alumnus, said that the CUE system is a “Cadillac service” and is the “envy” of other local jurisdictions because of its “green” hybrid buses. Greenfield says that in addition to subsidizing CUE, Fairfax also pays fees to Metro to subsidize bus and rail service to the area. He says that if any cutbacks are made in CUE service or routes that he wants to make sure Metro buses will service affected areas to cover the shortfall.

Mason’s Role in the Service
Noting that Mason spends $900,000 a year on the Mason to Metro shuttle contract with private company Reston Limousine, Councilmember Steven Stombres suggested the city “aggressively negotiate” with Mason to be the transportation provider for the shuttle service. Strombres, who serves as the chief of staff to Virginia Congressman and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and is also an alternate on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, said that any discussion of CUE bus cuts should consider riders, workers and revenue impacts.

The mayor “loved” Stombres’s suggestion and seemed confident that “we could [provide Mason to Metro shuttle service] more cost effective than a for-profit organization [such as Reston Limousine] could do.”

At the end of the meeting, Lederer asked the city’s staff and city manager to prepare a budget memo outlining possible ways to cut money from the CUE bus service through different variations on service cuts. He said that no consideration should include cuts to early morning or rush hour schedules. Instead he suggested looking at expanding the intervals between bus service during non-rush hour periods from every 30 minutes to up to an hour between buses, stopping weekday evening service at 9 PM rather than midnight, or reducing service on the weekends – possibly eliminating weekend service altogether. He wants to know how much money each of the cuts could save the city.

The mayor also mentioned other possible considerations like raising fares up to 30 cents to $1.75.

Lederer also said that Mason community members make up 30 percent of CUE bus riders – a large percentage of the ridership that doesn’t pay for the service. Citing support from the few Mason faculty and students in attendance at the meeting, the mayor proposed charging Mason students and faculty to ride buses – though he did not say if they should pay full-price.