Letter to the Editor: Council on Aging and Clay Transit

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There has been a great deal of discussion lately about the Clay County Council on Aging and Clay Transit, most of which has come from those that are minimally involved in the organization.

I feel compelled to comment on some of these issues, as a person who was directly involved. Clay Transit has been providing a great deal of transportation services to senior citizens, the disabled and those that have no other means of transportation available. Along with these services, commonly referred to as the Transportation Disadvantaged Program, Clay Transit has developed seven “Public Routes” that are operated much like a city bus route, with designated stops.

These routes offer transportation to anyone in Clay County for a fare of $1 or 50-cents for seniors. These routes connect with one another, as well as with JTA buses, allowing Clay County residents to travel throughout Clay County and into Jacksonville. This is a much-needed bus service considering the very limited service provided by JTA in Clay County.

These public routes were never designed to make money, since all involved parties seem to agree that public transportation services are traditionally heavily-subsidized. It is not a matter of increasing ridership since all money collected is reduced from the contracted rate that Clay Transit is paid by either the Florida Department of Transportation or the Jacksonville Transportation Authority.

This subsidy comes from the Clay County Board of County Commissioners, who have generously supported the Council on Aging and Clay Transit for many years. The problem is that their financial contribution has not kept up with the yearly increasing costs of operating a transportation program of nearly 50 buses. The County Commissioners have funded the Council on Aging at the same rate for over 10 consecutive years, while the costs of doing business has grown substantially.

During my initial term as Executive Director of the Council on Aging from 2008-2013, other aspects of the transportation program were profitable enough to cover any losses associated with the public routes.

After three years away from the Council, I returned in 2016, only to learn of the increasing losses beginning in 2015. It quickly became apparent that the losses could not be overcome without a significant influx of new money. Positions were cut and other expenses reduced for a savings of over $148,000 per year.

A formal request was made in February 2018 to the County Commissioners for additional funding and relief from unpaid fuel bills. After several meetings to discuss the financial situation, the request was never answered. The solution that was recommended by the Commissioners was to eliminate the seven public routes, which would create a significant hardship for many Clay County residents who rely on this transportation service to get to work or other needed destinations. This was nothing more than focusing on the bottom line versus the needs of Clay County residents.

The Clay County Council on Aging Board of Directors has now indicated that the “mess is bigger than anyone knew” even though the losses were presented at the bi-monthly Board meetings for the past year and a half. In their infinite wisdom, they chose to take action and fire the Executive Director (yours truly) versus addressing the issue and agreeing on a practical solution.

As opposed to filling needed positions, such as, executive director, director of finance, etc. they have chosen to throw in the towel and dissolve the Council on Aging as we have known it for nearly the past 50 years and turn it over to another nonprofit organization, Aging True, which is the Duval County equivalent to the Clay County Council on Aging.

The problem is that Aging True is not the transportation provider in Duval County as the Council on Aging is in Clay County, so therefore, they have no expertise in the transportation business.

This move was highly suggested by ElderSource, the Area Agency on Aging, that provides funding for senior programs in seven counties in Northeast Florida. ElderSource became involved in the discussion when they expressed concern that their funds that were allocated for senior services might be being used to cover the transportation deficit, which was never the case. It was stated that ElderSource only found out of the Council’s financial woes when the organization struggled to fulfill its payroll obligations. Making payroll was never in question, so again, decisions were made that are probably not in the best interest of the residents of Clay County.

This is an unfortunate situation and one that could have been handled in a better way, but my fear is that the decisions made are at the detriment of the employees at the Council on Aging and the citizens of Clay County,

Al Rizer

Former Executive Director

Clay County Council on Aging

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