LAKELAND — As the Lakeland City Commission sees a new majority join its ranks in January, so too will Citrus Connection's leadership experience a major personnel change.
Of the five-member board, two are not returning in January and one is putting in a bid for state-level office and will have to leave sometime next year.
Lakeland Commissioners Don Selvage and Jim Malless are leaving the board in January. Selvage decided not to see a third term on the commission. Malless lost his re-election bid to Stephanie Madden on Nov. 7. Selvage's seat will be filled by Michael Dunn or Larry Durrence, who face each other in a runoff election Dec. 5.
County Commissioner John Hall is shooting to replace state Rep. Neil Combee and is expected to resign from the County Commission sometime next year, depending on the timing of a special election.
Citrus Connection Executive Director Tom Phillips said the leadership changes come as the busing agency enters a new era, emerging from a yearslong financial turnaround plan and a re-alignment of the agency's goals.
"We're still on the front edge of being where we should be," Phillips said. In May, the agency received five factory-fresh buses, its first in a decade. It has also recently adopted electronic fare cards, which for the first time will provide better information about riders, not just rides, the current best estimate of system use.
County Commissioner George Lindsey and Lakeland Commissioner Phillip Walker will be the old hands on the board, Lindsey with six years in the role and Walker closing out his second year.
Selvage is the longest-serving current member of the transit authority, and the only current member who participated in the firing of the previous director and the hiring of Phillips in 2011.
Selvage, at the time of then-34-year-old Phillips' hiring, said they were "asking a lieutenant to do a general's job."
Selvage said Phillips has done that general's job: Citrus Connection today is financially stable, relatively low drama and is providing the amount of service Polk County's people are willing to fund and then some through arrangements with businesses, organizations and other governments.
But Citrus Connection remains essentially transportation of last resort for some of the county's poorest residents, and the disabled. As a private citizen, Selvage said he wants to advocate service expansion and take the case to voters to fund it.
Selvage said that as a young man in Ohio he relied on public transportation, and it's where he met his wife, Rita.
"My family couldn't afford to buy me a car," he said. "Without public transportation in Columbus, Ohio, I'm not sure how I could have gone to college. I'm not sure how I would have gotten to my job."
The current acceptance of the bus service's role as transportation for the most needy, not transportation for all, came after the failure at the polls of a 1-cent sales tax initiative in 2014.
"I still think we need to, as a community, invest more in public transportation," Selvage said. "I would like to see us, at some point, go back to the public for help, but that's a tall hill to climb.
"Public transportation's never going to pay for itself," he added. "We have to make a decision as a community if we're going to subsidize those that need public transportation."
Citrus Connection's Lakeland funding comes primarily from a property tax of 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable value in Lakeland and surrounding areas. Its county operations are funded directly by the Board of County Commissioners. It also receives significant state and federal funding and grants to operate paratransit and other specialized transportation services.
Citrus Connection's board could ask voters to increase the property-tax rate, but Phillips said the 2014 failure was a strong signal not to seek additional public revenues.
At this point, it's not clear who will replace the outgoing board members, especially as the election for Selvage's seat has not been resolved.
Lakeland Mayor-elect Bill Mutz, who will appoint the new Lakeland delegates, told Direct Gates he has not spoken with any of the commissioners remaining in January or commissioners-elect on who would like to serve in the role.
Christopher Guinn can be reached at Christopher.Guinn@directgates.com or 863-802-7592. Follow him on Twitter @CGuinnNews.