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County establishes policy for C-TRAN changes

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) adopted an official policy on Tuesday, which will govern how it implements and informs the public of any changes to the C-TRAN bus service.

The policy is the first step required by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) before any changes to the service can be made. Under the new policy adopted on Tuesday, the board must offer citizens a chance to express their opinions on proposed changes in a public hearing. Members of the public also will be able to submit their opinions to the board prior to, and at least three days after, the public hearing.

The county will have a minimum of seven days to inform the public of any proposed fare increases, or service reductions, and will be required to advertise in the newspaper, on the county's web site, and on flyers distributed on, and posted in, the interior of buses and transit vehicles.

Jeff Metarko, director of the Clayton County Transportation and Development Department, said the county is taking the legal steps necessary in preparation for the very real possibility of service cuts.

"At the direction of the board, we're looking at cost-saving measures," Metarko said. "We're having active discussions about what's important, and what the county can bear [financially]."

Looking for ways to deal with an increasingly tight budget, commissioners have discussed several cost-saving changes to C-TRAN, which annually, is a $10 million operation. Proposed changes include:

· Eliminating bus route 500 (the airport loop), which makes stops at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Delta Maintenance Facility, and the airport's Air Cargo Facility;

· Increasing fares;

· Dropping weekend services;

· Cutting the number of scheduled bus trips during non-peak hours.

BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell said he is pleased that the county is following procedure. He said he is opposed to any changes that would put significant burdens on people who depend on the bus to go to work, however.

"My momma rode the trolleys and the streetcars of this region," Bell said. "For 61 percent of this ridership, they use it to go to work. This is the only way they have to go. I want to do everything in my power to accommodate them.

"I am delighted to see [the policy] because we are following the law," Bell said. "If we make changes [to C-TRAN], we have to make the public aware." However, "I'm opposed to cutting any of it, except those areas that aren't having any success." He added that he has had discussions with U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) in order to "leverage every penny" of federal funding for C-TRAN.

On Tuesday, the board also met with the county's financial advisor, Jerry Cutrer. He outlined a plan for how the county can approach Moody's Investors Service, when the company re-evaluates the county's credit rating in about two months. "We've got a methodical process," Cutrer said. "Moody's has said that these are our concerns. We should respond to them formally, but informally as well."

In December, Moody's threatened to downgrade the county's current Aa2 rating, due to several factors, including the county's current reserve balance, pending litigation, and $51.9 million in rated debt.

Cutrer said Moody's will base its decision on several factors, including the results of the county's fiscal year 2008 audit, a mid-year critique of the fiscal year 2009 budget, the county's compliance with state reporting requirements, the local economy, the county's fiscal stabilization and recovery plan, local demographics, and the county's management practices.

Cutrer said the county would be protected from paying increased rates on its $51.9 million in rated debt -- even if its bond rating is lowered -- because the interest rate on that debt is fixed. According to Moody's, the rated debt is associated with bonds issued through the county's Development Authority, Housing Authority, and Urban Redevelopment Agency.

"The [approximately] $50 million dollars of bonds are fixed-rate bonds," Cutrer said. "If there were a change in the rating, that would have zero impact on the county."

Bell said while the county may not feel the immediate impact of a lowered credit rating, he worried that it could cause the county to be financially obligated to SunTrust Banks, Inc., which owns a $40.2 million bond that the county backed earlier this year to support the operations of Southern Region Medical Center. That bond has a variable interest rate of up to 12 percent.

"Who is to say that if the county's [credit] rating is weakened ... that the interest on that one [the $40.2 million hospital bond] won't go up?" Bell asked. "That is the one I worry about the most. I am pursuing that we maintain our rating just in case."