published Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Walker County weighs bus funds options

Walker Transit will continue to operate normally as Walker County officials figure out how to pay for the bus system that helps those who can't drive get their medical care and shop.

County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said Monday she's had calls from riders concerned the system had shut down after she held off Thursday on signing a contract to continue the bus service.

While Walker Transit mainly serves the elderly and disabled, its customers include people getting to work and students going to Georgia Northwestern Technical College's Walker County campus.

Riding the bus costs $2 one way or $4 round trip.

"You can't provide service without money," Heiskell said.

The service's operating costs are funded 50-50 by the county and the federal government. The county's share this year is $348,000, and Heiskell said she has to figure out how to come up with that amount -- or cut the program's cost.

"I didn't sign the contract because I thought it might need to be modified," she said. "I would never just jerk the rug out. We'll do a transition if we do anything to make changes."

Heiskell said she spent Monday morning reviewing the transit system and making changes -- including appointing county employee Rodney Parker as county road superintendent, which includes running Walker Transit.

"I've been monitoring [Parker's] performance for some time, and it is excellent," Heiskell said.

County Coordinator David Ashburn had been in charge of roads and the bus service. Ashburn will serve as a consultant to Parker and continue his other duties, she said, including overseeing the county's emergency services department and construction projects.

"He's been an invaluable person to me and will continue to be so," Heiskell said of Ashburn.

Walker Transit has a fleet of 11 buses, one of which is out of commission because of an accident last week. It employs about 15 full- and part-time drivers and two dispatchers.

Drivers pick up riders at home, Heiskell said, and provide 200 to 300 rides per day. Buses travel all over Walker County and take people as far as Brainerd and Hamilton Place mall.

Iris Petersmarck, assistant director of the Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Georgia, said rural bus service is a critical service for seniors who can't drive.

"Oh, absolutely, it's important to them," Petersmarck said. "It just means everything to them."

County government revenues are down by $3 million over the past three years, because of factors such as the tax digest, or total value of property countywide, decreasing by more than $81 million since 2010, Heiskell said recently in a "state of the county" speech.

There's a chance the county could get about $400,000 to pay for the bus service, Heiskell said, by calling in a promissory note that county government issued to the Walker County Development Authority.

Residents don't want to pay higher taxes, Heiskell said, and they don't like it when services are cut.

"I'm between a rock and a hard place," she said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township┬╣s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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