Key transit funding is in question

WARREN — The largest source of local dollars Trumbull County’s public transit system leverages for grant dollars could be in jeopardy as an oversight committee contemplates restructuring the way the county provides cheap rides for senior citizens.

The administrator of the Trumbull County Senior Levy funds, Diane M. Siskowic-Jurkovic, is expected to request a meeting with Trumbull County commissioners to discuss going out to bid for transit services, rather than turning the cash over to the Trumbull County Transit Board.

The meeting with commissioners was suggested during a Dec. 22 meeting of the transportation subcommittee of the Trumbull County Senior Levy Advisory Council, where the issue was discussed with members of the subcommittee and Siskowic-Jurkovic.

Siskowic-Jurkovic said she is concerned the transit board’s contractor isn’t spending the senior levy cash in the most efficient way and said by her calculations, they may be able to find a provider who can offer trips at a cheaper cost per mile, thereby stretching the senior levy funds.

“Are they trying to kill the system?” asked Terry Thomas, president and CEO of Community Bus Services, the company that contracts with the transit board to provide rides. Thomas questioned whether the money even qualified for a bid process.

Cash from the senior levy handed over to the transit board increased from $425,000 to $600,000 in 2017, and is used with other local dollars to bring in matching dollars from the Federal Transit Administration and the Ohio Department of Transportation to make up the board’s $2.2 million budget. To come up with other local dollars, the board collects fare money from passengers and has contracts with several Trumbull County communities and entities that pay an annual fee to the board in exchange for cheaper rides for their residents.

The senior levy, passed initially in 2005 and renewed by voters in 2010 and 2015, generates about $2.4 million a year. The majority of the cash generated is awarded to companies that provide services to seniors, after a competitive bid process. Transporation is the levy’s third highest cost — 35 percent of the cash goes toward in-home care, 27 percent goes to senior citizen centers and 20 percent is spent on transportation, according to a 2013-2014 fiscal year breakdown of levy spending.

Thomas said money from the senior levy has always gone to the transit board through an allocation of the Trumbull County commissioners, and as he understands it, the money can’t be put to bid.

“That money is outside the purview of the council. We’ve been doing this for 12 years, providing $2 rides for all seniors, and that is what we intend to keep doing,” Thomas said.

The cash guarantees one-way rides for seniors anywhere in Trumbull County that cost only $2 or $1.50, depending on which community the senior lives in.

Siskowic-Jurkovic said maintaining $2 rides for seniors would be a part of the bid package and that as long as commissioners approve it, there is no reason they can not go out to bid.

And, going out to bid doesn’t necessarily mean the advisory council will recommend the senior levy funds should go elsewhere, Siskowic-Jurkovic said.

“My point with this is, nothing ventured, nothing gained. We don’t have to award bids. We can do the bid process to show your due diligence, that you are looking for the best possible use of our funds, at the best possible rate out there, to make our transportation dollars more competitive,” Siskowic-Jurkovic said.

Siskowic-Jurkovic said by her calculations, CBS’ rides last January cost about $3.89 per mile in senior levy cash, compared to rides that cost between $1.50 to $2.85 in Ashtabula and Mahoning counties. Even if the number per mile were rounded up to $3 a mile, the cost of providing a month worth of senior trips, would have been about $42,000, compared to the $50,000 that was distributed to the transit board for CBS last January, Siskowic-Jurkovic said.

Thomas said the trips can’t be accurately calculated on a per mile basis, but on a per trip basis, which is about $60.

And, Thomas said CBS and the transit board are charged with providing a public transit system, not just a senior ride transit system, and if matching dollars disappear, the ability of the system to provide rides for other members of the public will be hindered.

Another service is unlikely to be able to provide seniors with $2 rides on $425,000 a year, without all of the cash the funds leverage from the FTA, Thomas said.

Mary Williams, a member of the advisory council and a members of its transportation subcommittee, said she believes there needs to be better communication between CBS, the transit board and the advisory council.

“I don’t want the community as a whole to lose out on a service just because we pull matching funds,” Williams said. “We need more communication and time to make sure they know what we expect of them.”

“Why don’t they try to get a transportation levy passed?” said Niki Frenchko, a member of the advisory council and chair of its transportation subcommittee. “Their funding isn’t really our board’s responsibility.”

Siskowic-Jurkovic began reviewing CBS’ senior trip counts in mid-2017, after the commissioners granted $175,000 more to the transit board to beef up rides for seniors. Siskowic-Jurkovic wanted proof CBS was providing seniors with 20,000 rides anually — as stated in a memorandum of understanding created when commissioners granted the extra cash.

Thomas said his company has been accommodating to Siskowic-Jurkovic, opening its office and its books to her so she can audit the rides.

“We can and have demonstrated what services we provide to seniors. This kind of talk is putting a $2.3 million transit service at risk,” Thomas said. “And people like the service, there were 29 complaints out of 60,000 rides. That isn’t bad. We’ve worked hard at providing this service. Why now? Why would they want to kill the system?”

He said he doesn’t understand why Siskowic-Jurkovic doesn’t seem to be satisfied with CBS’ services.

“We, on the senior services advisory council, are working on problems the transit board should be working on. We want efficiency. And we don’t have the control we need to make sure we are getting efficiency. Going out to bid might give us that,” Siskowic-Jurkovic said.

“We need more oversight. Competition could drive the cost down. And more efficient transportation services could free up money for other senior services,” Frenchko said. “We owe the senior citizens and the tax payers that due diligence, to hold the provider accountable to the board. They are treating this money like an entitlement, and it’s not.”