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Jun 13, 2011 9:55 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP

Baton Rouge bus system seeks to plug deficit

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The CEO of the East Baton Rouge Parish bus system says he's "very confident" that enough money will be found to ensure the Capital Area Transit System gets through the remainder of the year without having to shut down.
Brian Marshall said money provided by an unidentified "private group" and a "one-time source fund" is expected to make up the majority of the bus system's budget deficit this year.
Another private donor and a potential state grant are other funding sources being pursued to plug up the remainder of the hole.
The CATS's budget deficit of $1.2 million has grown to $1.4 million in recent months because of climbing gas prices.
Marshall said the money must be secured by the end of September at the latest, but he is hopeful that funding can be secured before the end of July.
On July 31, if the deficit is not plugged, CATS will prepare for a shutdown by sending out notifications of a potential closure to vendors, employees and riders.
In January, CATS officials attempted to balance their budget by cutting it, but Metro Council members said riders would bear the brunt of those cuts, including the elimination of weekend service and higher fares. The Metro Council rejected the cuts, leaving CATS with a deficit that could mean closure by the beginning of October.
"I think what the Metro Council was trying to say was that if we leave (CATS) with this sense of urgency then the(mayor-president's) administration will do what they have to do to save it," Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said.
More than four months have passed without local or state officials offering a funding solution for this year - even though Mayor-President Kip Holden and State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, have indicated that they were seeking short-term funds for CATS.
But the crisis did lead to the creation of a panel of parish leaders appointed to make long-term recommendations about mass transit.
The Blue Ribbon Commission has worked for the past two months, creating plans to boost CATS beyond its current level of service.
Marshall said the commission has generated buzz in the private sector to help CATS get through the year with donations or grants.
Marshall said Thursday that he can't identify the groups with whom he has spoken about providing funds until the deals are final.
But, he said, he is "pretty sure that CATS will have one-time money to carry us through 2011."
"Nothing is absolutely sure until the money is in pocket," he said. "But the conversations have been so productive that it's doubtful that anyone will back out."
The Blue Ribbon Commission's main recommendation was a tax election that would be held in the fall of 2012, rather than this fall. That means the dedicated tax revenue wouldn't be available to bolster CATS' budget until well into 2013.
Marshall said that leaves a lot of uncertainty for what will happen to CATS in 2012.
CATS receives about $3 million a year from the city-parish, which makes up about one-fourth of its overall budget of $12.1 million.
CATS officials plan to provide a projected budget for the city-parish by Aug. 1, city-parish Finance Director Marsha Hanlon said. The city-parish will use it to determine how much funding should be allocated to CATS for 2012.
"There's going to be a strong competition for funding on a number of levels," Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said.
But, she said, $3 million might not be enough for next year, considering the bus system's recent funding shortfalls and the continuing rise in the costs of maintenance and fuel.

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