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Top Utah Transit Authority executives told the agency's board Wednesday that next year they will forgo any bonuses which have been big and controversial and asked the agency to redirect that money "to provide more public transportation service."
That came as UTA proposed a 2016 budget that would dip into its cash reserves next year for $10.4 million to take care of operations. The agency also used $9.9 million from savings this year as it spent more than revenues generated.
Legislative auditors have raised red flags about that budgeting practice. And some opponents of Proposition 1, which would raise sales taxes for transportation, say it is designed largely to "bail out" UTA for spending more than it brings in.
UTA, however, says using reserves is part of a long-term strategy to keep services constant for a few years while its debt payments are high on recently completed expansion of rail lines. The agency says it is on firm financial footing.
Top UTA executives and regional managers wrote to the board Wednesday saying that for 2016, they "wish to decline incentive pay and to request that you redirect those resources to provide more transportation service. The absence of incentive pay will not lessen our commitment to accomplishing the 2016 goals."
Lower-level administrators will still be eligible for bonuses for hitting performance goals set by the board.
Two years ago, top bonuses were as much as $30,000 for some executives, including now-retired President and CEO Michael Allegra.
After bad publicity, the UTA Board adopted a new policy last year limiting bonuses to $7,500 each. Now, no bonuses for top execs will come next year as some opponents to Proposition 1 have used high UTA pay and bonuses as a reason to attack it.
Board members hailed the executive team for its offer, and said they will likely discuss whether to eliminate incentive pay.
Meanwhile, UTA officials unveiled a proposed 2016 budget that would spend $359.8 million on operations, up 3.7 percent from this year.
It would avoid increasing fares, and would continue current promotional discounts through 2016 for people who use electronic FAREPAY cards which are 40 percent for bus-only riders, and 20 percent for others. Officials say the budget will also expand overall service hours by about 5 percent.
About 2.9 percent of that budget would come from using cash reserves.
Also, 65.5 percent of revenues would come from sales taxes; 14.2 percent would come from passenger fares; and 17.4 percent from federal grants, advertising and other revenues.
The budget does not include any potential money that could come from Prop 1 if it wins voter approval.
Some of the spending proposed includes:
• Debt service, mostly on recent rail expansion: $103.6 million. That is 29 percent of UTA's operating budget.
• Bus operations: $86.5 million, up 4.5 percent from this year.
• FrontRunner commuter rail: $32.7 million, up 0.5 percent.
• Light rail (TRAX and the Sugar House streetcar): $44 million, up 4.2 percent.
• General and administrative costs: $28.8 million, up 4.2 percent.
A legislative audit last year criticized UTA for spending more than revenues generate, and said the practice contributed to shaky finances after the agency borrowed heavily to build new TRAX, FrontRunner and streetcar lines. "UTA has little margin for error if sales-tax revenues do not meet expectations," it said.
Some elected officials in Utah County have attacked UTA's use of reserves as they opposed Prop 1 in a voter information pamphlet there.
"A primary effect of the Proposition 1 tax increase is to bail out UTA, whose operating and debt service costs are projected to exceed revenues for the next several years," wrote Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee, Mapleton Mayor Brian Wall, state Rep. Brian Greene and Sens. Margaret Dayton and Mark Madsen.
But interim UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson said Wednesday, "Our reserves exist only to be applied to the mission of the agency, and that is either for service, paying off debt or making capital improvements."
UTA also unveiled on Wednesday a capital-projects budget for next year totaling $175.8 million. The bulk of that $106 million is for ongoing construction of a "bus rapid transit" route between Orem and Provo.
Its buses will have their own traffic lanes in some stretches. Passengers must buy tickets from machines before boarding, and buses have more doors.
The UTA Board's Planning and Development Committee on Wednesday sent the budget to the full board for review. The board plans a public hearing on it on Nov. 18 at 3 p.m. at UTA headquarters, 669 W 200 South in Salt Lake City. Final adoption is expected in December.