FRISCO - A year of high fuel and personnel costs has emptied out Summit Stage coffers and left transportation officials scrambling for ways to cut expenses in 2013.
The free bus system is facing a $300,000 deficit as 2012 winds down, even with the mass transit tax, its primary revenue source, up for the year.
"We've had a tough year," transit director John Jones said. "We're still dealing with, basically, the throes of the recession. Fuel costs have been up and down and ran way over what we budgeted."
The Stage also spent more than expected on maintenance to keep up an aging fleet of buses and saw high costs for personnel as well, with a veteran staff taking approximately 7,200 hours of vacation over the course of the year.
"The amount of vacation they're eligible to take - and they've certainly earned it - that's a cost that's got to be covered," Jones said. "In most departments, if a seat behind a desk is empty, it's just empty. But here, I've got to have somebody in the driver's seat."
Income from the mass transit tax, a sales tax that funds the Stage, is up from last year, climbing 3.1 percent, approximately $147,000, over 2011 as of August.
The Stage is under direction from Summit County government to cut expenses next year, according to Jones. He said he plans to reduce marketing spending first, cutting television ads for the Stage almost completely and reducing radio advertising as well.
"Marketing is the one area where if you look at my budget, you would see a drastic cutback," Jones said. "Everything else is pretty much status-quo."
Bus riders should not see any impacts to service from budget reductions next year. Additional cutbacks will be largely internal, such as trying to save money on office supplies.
The Stage is required to do some marketing to fulfill the requirements of a federal grant contract, Jones said.
Ridership on the local bus system is on the rise this year, up 6.5 percent in August from the same month last year. Late-night ridership climbed 24 percent in August, according to a Summit Stage report.
The Stage also acquired eight hand-me-down buses recently from the now-defunct Front Range Express. All together the buses cost $224,000, money that came out of capital reserves and did not impact this year's budget deficit. If purchased new, one bus would have cost the Stage $3.5 million.
The inherited buses are black, but will feature the Summit Stage logo. They are replacing eight older Stage buses, which will be sold off.