Tuesday, August 16, 2022

New Hanover County commissioners vote 3-2 to reject $57,000 WAVE stopgap request

The Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority will hold a public hearing next month to discuss potential service changes. (Port City Daily photo / File)
The Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority (WAVE) is facing issues with short-term funding as well as its long-term strategy. (Port City Daily photo / File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — County commissioners voted 3-2 against a request from WAVE for $57,000 to bridge fundings gaps for 2020; it was part of a series of requests to WAVE’s local funding partners.

Commissioners Julia Olson-Boseman, Patricia Kusek, and Woody White voted against the request from the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority (WAVE). Chairman Jonathan Barfield and Commissioner Rob Zapple voted for the funding. The vote comes a month after commissioners voted along the same lines to cut annual county funding to WAVE.

Related: New Hanover Commissioners voted to break ties with WAVE. What does that mean?

Commissioner White was outspoken about his concerns, both over WAVE’s current financial situation and its long term approach; White reiterated arguments he’s made over the last several years, including that WAVE needs to run more efficiently and that public transit should be turned over to the City of Wilmington.

Zapple, who has consistently disagreed with White on the topic, did also concede that WAVE needed to find new approaches to expand without continued budget deficits.

WAVE’s response

WAVE Executive Director Albert Eby said that, based on an independent study director by Wilmington and New Hanover County, the authority’s only option is to cut services to close budget gaps — although Eby noted WAVE did not consider this option lightly.

“The Authority’s position is to avoid cutting routes unless absolutely necessary since it significantly erodes public trust for Wave offerings and leaves potential passengers questioning their ability to access housing and employment based on the level of services offered,” Eby said.

WAVE’s ability to function is largely tied to outside funding, Eby added.

“Wave Transit is solely at the discretion of all of our funding partners when it comes to revenue. At the federal level, the inability of Congress to pass a budget not only leaves resource identification and budget planning very challenging, but government shutdowns and interruptions in revenue availability leave local government agencies like Wave Transit very vulnerable to significant service interruption. Additionally, changes in policy at the state level to respond to recent fiscal challenges at NCDOT leave all transit systems in the state eligible for significant cuts,” Eby said.

Eby said a number of factors impacted its bottom line, including ‘conflicting policy decisions’ about what WAVE’s mission should and budget increases that didn’t meet growing challenges.

“Misaligned visions for public transportation in the region also leave the Authority susceptible to conflicting policy decisions that lead to situations like the current one impacting the region. Wave Transit’s budget has increased less than one percent per year for the past five years. The lack of additional subsidies to meet the demands of a growing economy and a tight labor force demonstrates that Wave has implemented significant cost savings over the past five years to maintain a balanced budget,” Eby said, adding that WAVE’s conversion to compressed natural gas fuel has saved more than $500,000 since 2015.

“Unfortunately, the model is not sustainable in the long run as the cost to provide the current level of service is continuously increasing,” Eby said.

WAVE requested around $325,000 in stop-gap funding from its partners. In addition to the $57,000 requested from the county, WAVE also requested a quarter-million dollars from the City of Wilmington, and smaller amounts from Brunswick County, Leland, and Navassa (for WAVE services across the river) and Carolina Beach (for the Pleasure Island route).

Eby said that once those requests had been evaluated and responded to, WAVE would be able to provide a plan to either cut or reduce services to accommodate budget shortfalls.

Another issue, raised several times during the meeting, was Eby’s salary. Under the contract Eby negotiated in 2015, his base salary has increased annually, starting at $117,000 in 2016 and reaching $152,800 this summer. The total budget allowance for Eby’s salary in Fiscal Year 2020 is around $208,000 including benefits.

Eby said a “transit authority in another state” attempted to recruit him and the WAVE board negotiated a new contract that “based on market compensation.” Eby’s contract was unanimously approved at the time.

For comparison, other base salaries (not including benefits) for transportation authority directors in North Carolina as of 2018: Mark McDonald, High Point – $139,732; Adam Fischer, Greensboro – $126,763; Toneq’ McCullough, Winston-Salem — $118,354; John Lewis, Charlotte – $238,761.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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