Council on Aging facing drop in bus ridership

Debra W. Buehn
Posted 2/14/18

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Hoping to help alleviate the Clay County Council on Aging’s loss of tens of thousands of dollars stemming from its transportation system, county commissioners are offering …

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Council on Aging facing drop in bus ridership


GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Hoping to help alleviate the Clay County Council on Aging’s loss of tens of thousands of dollars stemming from its transportation system, county commissioners are offering some “manpower” from the county’s ranks.

At its Feb. 13 meeting, commissioners offered the help of the county auditor, Mike Price, to go over the books with the Council on Aging and see if there is a way to make up losses that are occurring in the transportation section of the COA’s services.

“I’ve been a transit consultant in my past life and there are very few operations that even break even,” said Commissioner Wayne Bolla, adding most such public transportation services are usually subsidized at some level by a government agency. “I think it’s a fallacy to believe that we can get this on a profit center basis that would show a profit or even break even. Let’s reduce the loss as much as we can.”

It was Bolla’s idea to have Price help out, and Al Rizer, the executive director of the Council on Aging, said the help in “manpower” would be well appreciated.

Rizer and John Bowles, who serves as the Council’s board president, appeared at the county commissioners’ request to go over the transportation financial woes.

The commisssion’s idea would be to have Price go over the transportation numbers and then bring the findings to the COA board and then next to the commission so “intelligent” decisions could be made as to what course to take, Bolla said.

The problem came up for discussion when the COA fell behind on its payments to the county for the fuel it receives from the county fuel inventory and for the maintenance performed by the county on the COA vehicles.

The COA runs buses on various routes that help seniors travel to doctor’s appointments and the like, as well as offering lines that are on a fixed route and provide services to anyone in the county for a small fee – 50 cents for seniors and $1 for others. (About 85 percent of riders are seniors.)

Although the council receives more than $650,000 in funding from the county (as well as in-kind services), and hundreds of thousands more from state and federal sources, transportation costs are eating into its budget, forcing it to take a look at ways to make up the shortfall. According to a recent letter from Clayton Meng, the county’s finance director, to the county manager, the last payment the county received from the COA was dated Feb. 2 and was for $5,689.16 for October vehicle maintenance. That leaves $130,098.93 still owed to the county for fuel it received from the county from August 2017, through January 2018 and vehicle maintenance for the same time period.

The Council on Aging also operates as the County Transportation Coordinator, and is under contract to do that until 2021.

The financial problems have arisen for basically two reasons, Rizer said. They include that the largest broker through which the COA books trips for people has dropped its volume of trips dramatically, which means a huge drop in revenue. For the last couple of years, he said, the COA was getting about $325,000 per year from that broker. This year it is budgeted to get about $110,000. Other counties that use that broker are having the same problems, he added.

When asked by Commissioner Diane Hutchings if the broker is taking its business elsewhere, Rizer said that is not the case.

“So the question for us is where is that business going,” he said, adding that some people think it is going to places like Uber.

“I have difficulty really grasping that because so many of the people that we transport are in wheelchairs of that type of thing,” he said.

But no matter where the business is going or why, the problem is the drop in revenue, which has led the COA to look at cost-saving methods. Among the ideas it has come up with are to cut back on the amount it reimburses for travel, leave open a position that has become available in the adult day program due to the employee vacating it and reducing a few workers by “so many hours based on what we would think would be workable” in certain programs.

One other idea is to close each of the four senior centers, which are located in Green Cove Springs, Orange Park, Middleburg and Keystone Heights, one day a week, he said.

That idea proved particularly unpopular with the county commissioners, who said to them, the first mission of the Council on Aging is involved with the senior centers and what they provide in the way of meals, socialization, programs and the like.

“Under no circumstances will I support or want to see a reduction at the senior centers,” said Chairman Gavin Rollins. “To me, that is the core function of what the Council on Aging does.”

Rollins said repeatedly that his number one priority in the situation was to see no drop in staffing, hours or days a week the centers are open.

Other commissioners agreed. “It seems to me we need to attack where the deficit is rather than nibbling around the edges,” said Commissioner Mike Cella. “You’re talking about essentially changing the basic mission of your organization by closing the buildings down each day. If we can identify where we’re losing monies that’s where you really need to attack it,” he said, adding it seemed the transportation area was the problem.

Rizer added that they had also looked at cutting some of the under-performing fixed transportation routes, including the “Teal” route and the “Magenta” route. The teal route runs from Keystone Heights to the Black Creek Park and Ride, while the Magenta routes runs from Keystone Heights to Gainesville. That route, which runs three times a day, is particularly hard to cut, however, because many veterans take it to get to their medical appointments at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Gainesville. One idea would be to cut the route to twice a day, but that could leave some riders who would take it in the morning waiting a long time to get home by the late afternoon run, Rizer said.

Commissioners also suggested seeing about getting some funding from municipalities that are benefited by the bus services.

The county commissioners present (Commissioner Gayward Hendry had to leave early) agreed that having Price help the COA look over its numbers would be a good way to try and help out, and voiced their support for what the COA does for the county.

“I have to tell you I would not want to be in your position right now because no choices are good,” said Hutchings, adding that “we’re all in this together.”

“We don’t want to cut anything if we can possibly prevent it but we also can’t sit here doing the same thing and expecting different results,” said Rizer. “We have to take some kind of significant action to get this under control and back on track.”

The COA board meets on Feb. 20 to go over all of the ideas being looked at as cost-saving measures.


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