Tempers flare at transit meeting

Tribune Chronicle / Renee Fox Diane Siskowic-Jurkovic, administrator of senior levy funds in Trumbull County, debates Terry Thomas, background, owner of Community Bus Services, the contractor for the Trumbull County Transit Board, about his company’s practices at a meeting Wednesday to hash out differences between the transit system and the board that oversees one of their funding sources, the Trumbull County Senior Levy Advisory Council.

WARREN — Numerous concerns were aired, tempers flared and a tentative plan for moving forward was formed during a three-hour meeting Wednesday between Trumbull County commissioners and some of the parties at the center of a dispute about spending senior levy money on the county’s public transportation system.

Members of the Trumbull County Senior Levy Advisory Council requested the meeting with commissioners and invited representatives from Trumbull County Transit to discuss the cost of rides to taxpayers, complaints users have, accountability and the legalities of spending money collected in the name of a levy for seniors to front cash for a public transit system that is not allowed to prioritize senior rides.

Community Bus Services, the transit system’s contractor, gave 60,000 rides total last year, which includes rides for students, people with disabilities, seniors and members of the general public. In exchange for $600,000 in 2017, a memorandum of understanding required they provide 20,000 rides to seniors. The $600,000 accounts for the largest piece of local match money the transit board uses to leverage state and federal dollars. It is unclear if 20,000 senior rides were given in 2017, but it appears the total was under.

A preliminary 2018 budget for the transit board is counting on $425,000 in senior levy money and $75,000 in addition to match with grant dollars for a new program in Warren to bring transportation to people living in food deserts.

Niki Frenchko, chair of the senior levy advisory council’s transportation subcommittee, said she questions whether the laws surrounding levy administration allow the senior levy money to be dumped into a pot with the other funds, and spent on rides for people who are not seniors.

Mark Hess, the retired administrator of the transit system who is staying on through March, said the board has received clean audits year after year, while using one account to pay for services for all groups of riders.

The county commissioners — Mauro Cantalamessa, Frank Fuda and Dan Polivka — said they would take the concerns to the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office, which has signed off on the agreements with the transit board in the past.

The commissioners also agreed to wait on their decision to appropriate money to the transit board until March 1, after the senior levy advisory council has time to make a recommendation.

Frenchko said the council wants to see more accountability written into the memorandum of understanding with the transit board.

Hess recommended the agreement between the two boards be more specific about what the board and its contractor need to report so the levy council can more easily evaluate what services seniors are getting for the levy money.

Part of the dispute between the entities is the cost for the rides Community Bus Services gives.

Terry Thomas, the bus company’s owner, said Wednesday the rides cost taxpayers about $30 each, but they cost the rider much less because the $2 million system gave 60,000 rides last year.

Numbers provided by Hess show the average cost per trip in the first 10 months of 2017 averaged to about $43. Numbers for November, December and January were not available, Hess said.

Diane Siskowic-Jurkovic, administrator of the senior levy funds, said access to monthly ridership reports more quickly would make it easier to audit the agreement.

Concerns about complaints about the transit system from riders of all kinds, especially seniors, were also raised. While Thomas said there were only 29 complaints filed and resolved in 2017, Paul Davis, a member of the advisory council, said when he worked as a driver for the transit system, he heard 29 complaints a month, not a year. But, Davis said, riders don’t report the complaints out of concern it might make their experience worse next time. John Saulitas, ombudsman for the Area Agency on Aging 11, said 80 to 90 percent of seniors don’t feel comfortable reporting complaints to a service provider and either report it to a neutral agency or even stop using the service.

Frenchko also wants the transit service to offer riders other options if Community Bus Services can’t give a client a ride at the time they want. She said the board needs a mobility manager that follows the Federal Transit Authority’s mobility manager job description, which includes coordinating rides with other providers in the event the main provider, CBS, can’t give a ride at the requested time.

Frenchko said the advisory council is contemplating recommending the board get half of the money it was going to be allocated, so the council can bid out the other half to providers that could fill in for seniors when CBS can’t fit a rider’s requested time into the schedule.

The length of time riders have to schedule a ride beforehand — 24 hours to seven days — is also in question. Though the policy is to call a maximum of seven days beforehand, callers are told it has to be seven days in advance, Frenchko said. She said she called Wednesday to ask for a ride because her car wouldn’t start. A dispatcher didn’t tell her she should have called 24 hours before, but seven days before, Frenchko said. Thomas disputed that was what the dispatchers tell callers.

Cantalamessa and Polivka said as commissioners, they have to think about the county as a big picture and avoid losing the public transit system without funding it with money from the general fund, while still addressing concerns the senior levy advisory council has.

Fuda said if the county is determined to have a public transit system, the commissioners may have to look at finding it a dedicated funding source that doesn’t rely on senior levy funds.