NICE Bus system CEO Michael Setzer offers testimony to the...

NICE Bus system CEO Michael Setzer offers testimony to the Nice Bus Transit Committee during the NICE bus hearings on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A NICE Bus proposal aimed at reducing a multimillion dollar budget shortfall through steep service cuts failed Thursday night, saving nine routes slated for elimination as early as January and relieving riders who said they depend on the bus lines for their livelihoods.

“We have three yes votes and three no votes, said Nassau County Bus Transit Committee Chairman Sheldon Shrenkel at the second of two public hearings held on the issue Thursday at the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola. “There will be no January cuts.”

Close to two dozen members of the audience who stayed until the end of the second hearing broke into applause at the announcement, which came after many of them expressed their disfavor with the proposals.

NICE Chief Executive Officer Michael Setzer outlined the proposal to close a $7 million to $12 million shortfall in funding in two phases: a series of preliminary cut to take effect in January — the nine routes that included the new Elmont Flexi on-demand service, which rolled out just a few months ago, and a set of deeper cuts to arrive, if necessary in April.

County Executive Edward Mangano’s proposal to reduce Nassau’s subsidy to NICE by $3.8 million may spike the budget deficit from $7 million to $12 million.

In past years, NICE service cuts were limited to lines that had the least volume. The cuts proposed this time, however, could have affected even routes with high daily ridership.

One route, for example, which was just saved from the chopping block, was the N80/81 Hicksville Sunrise Mall Line, which boasts a daily ridership of 525 people. And the N19 Freeport Babylon line, which carries 650 people a day, was slated for elimination in the April cuts.

The committee voted Thursday only on the first set. Their rejection of the proposal came after two public hearing sessions, each attended by about three dozen people, who voiced their concerns about how yet another cut in service could throw their lives into turmoil.

Aaron Watkins-Lopez cast the first vote against the cuts. “For the last five years, NICE bus has been unable to balance their budget and I cannot believe that for the next five years, that you’re going to be able to,” he said. “I vote no.”

“It is with a heavy heart that I vote yes,” committee member Dawn Falco said, adding that “the funds just are not here.”

Some members noted that the bus company’s financial woes are akin to an emotional roller coaster. Too often, they said, cuts in service are proposed and implemented only to be restored once an untapped or overlooked source of money streams in.

For example, in January, NICE eliminated 11 routes to close a $7.5 million budget gap. But a $3 million bailout from Nassau County allowed NICE to restore most of the service.

Nassau will continue to provide $2.6 million in mandatory bus subsidies needed to get $66 million in state funds.

Speakers including Legis. Carrie Solages (D-Elmont) urged members of the public to press their state legislators to provide more funding for NICE and to try to persuade the Nassau Interim Finance Authority to release critically needed funds. NIFA last week rejected Mangano’s $2.9 billion budget, citing a $36 million gap that opened when lawmakers cut a $105 fee on traffic and parking tickets.

The revised budget eliminates $3.8 million earmarked for NICE.

Eric Alexander, director of Vison Long Island, agreed with Solages’ proposal to encourage the return of the MTA payroll tax as a source of revenue.

Setzer said after the vote that he hopes more funding can be found to stave off greater cuts to service that his set of preliminary cuts were designed to avoid.

“It creates a dilemma now,” he said of the committee’s decision to reject the cuts. “The county has to find that money or we’ll be talking about deeper cuts . . . They’ve made their decision on the chance that the money will be found. I hope they’re right.”

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