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Rainbow Rider running in the red

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- Public transportation provider  Rainbow Rider is faced with a $100,000 budget shortfall for 2013 and is asking the counties it serves to help cover the deficit.

On Tuesday, March 4, Douglas County commissioners heard a brief report from Harold Jennissen, transit director for Rainbow Rider, which covers Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens, Todd and Traverse counties.

In a letter addressed to those counties’ social service directors, Jennissen reported that Rainbow Rider ended 2013 with a $100,000 deficit “due to increased service that we have provided but have not been reimbursed for by (the Minnesota Department of Transportation) over the last 10 years.”

Jennissen proposed that Douglas County pick up more than half that deficit, based on ridership, asking for $56,838. Stevens County is being asked to contribute $1,681, about two percent of the shortfall. 

During the meeting Tuesday, Douglas commissioners seemed cool to the idea of immediately covering the shortfall; instead, they indefinitely tabled action until Rainbow Rider administrators and its board members take time to explore all options for funding alternatives.

Jennissen also reported that Rainbow Rider faces an additional $145,787 shortfall for 2014.

According to Jennissen, since Rainbow Rider started in 1995, the counties contributed to any budget shortfall the organization had, which was evenly divided among the member counties.

“In 1999, as cash flow became a concern, it was decided that each county would contribute a predetermined amount, assessed on the number of rides,” Jennissen noted.

October 2001 was the last time Rainbow Rider invoiced for contributions from the counties.

“In hindsight, we should’ve probably not discontinued the money that came from the counties so (the deficit) wouldn’t be this large,” Jennissen told commissioners.

When asked about raising rates for passengers, Jennissen said it has been talked about. “But in Minnesota, our (rates are) at average or higher than most. For the population we transport, I don’t see that working,” he said.

Jennissen said they’ve also looked at cutting services and downsizing.

“What would happen is the people who really need it most would not be getting it because (we would) concentrate our service in the largest populations, so our rural communities would suffer. They really need our transportation,” he said.

Douglas Commissioner Dan Olson, who also serves as the chairman of the Rainbow Rider board of directors, also pointed out that, according to MnDOT, Rainbow Rider was not paying enough for driver wages. They were one of the lowest paid in the state.

“We needed to bring the wages up according to their standards,” Olson said, and that largely contributed to the deficit; approximately $50,000 for the 2013 shortfall.

In an interview, when asked to explain what brought the organization to a $100,000 deficit, Olson said “there were things that would come up and funding would get cut in the middle of the stream that you planned on. The (government) shutdown affected us, too. We didn’t get money coming in and it all kind of rolled downhill. We thought we had money coming in through the state and it just wasn’t there.”

Olson said they’ll be looking to other entities to possibly contribute more to Rainbow Rider funding, namely cities in the area like Alexandria, which benefit from transporting people to the city from outlying areas. Alexandria has budgeted $25,000 for Rainbow Rider this year, the same amount as 2013.