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Bus fare hike for disabled in Suffolk fails

A plan to hike fares on Suffolk's handicap-accessible minibus service stalled Tuesday, after some county legislators criticized the measure as an effort to balance the budget "on the backs of the disabled."

The legislature failed to get the 10 votes needed on a resolution that would have set hearings on the fare increase. The public works commissioner then could enact the increase. With Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) absent, lawmakers were split 9-8 in favor.

"I'm not sure we need this," said Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), the public works committee chairman. "We don't want to balance the books on the backs of the disabled."

County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, wants to raise Suffolk County Accessible Transit fares from $3 to $4 per ride, saying it could bring in more than $440,000 a year in additional revenue. In recent years, the service has provided some 440,000 rides per year.

SCAT fare hikes were among Bellone's initial set of proposals to help close a projected $530 million deficit.

Next week, Suffolk will lose about 260 employees who had only been funded for the first six months of 2012, and may lay off more next year.

But Ben Zwirn, Bellone's legislative liaison, said the county can't close the gap with layoffs alone. "The problem is, we cannot cut enough to balance this budget," he told lawmakers. "We need to also have some additional revenue coming in."

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider later said the administration won't abandon the effort. He noted that minibus rides for the disabled have cost the same since 1994.

"What were gas prices 18 years ago?" Schneider said. "It's not unreasonable to say this service costs Suffolk County taxpayers significantly more than it did 18 years ago, and may now merit a modest fare hike."

Tuesday's measure failed, in part, because Schneiderman and Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), both of whom typically support Bellone, voted no with the majority of Republicans. Schneiderman said he could "stomach" a 50-cent fare hike, while Hahn was unequivocal in her opposition.

"This is not a population we need to be coming after," she said. "This will be devastating to some of these people."

Brian Rossi, a blind Ridge resident, frequently uses the minibuses. He said Suffolk should improve scheduling before instituting a fare hike.

"I don't think they should raise it without improving service quality first," Rossi, 35, said after the meeting.

But Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon) said Suffolk has long subsidized its minibus service -- at more than $35 a ride -- so a $4 fare would still be "a bargain.""Even an increase up to a dollar would strike a very fair balance," he said.

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