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Ride services on the block
Pasco commissioners may cut aid to service agencies and expand county efforts.
By DAVID DeCAMP, Times Staff Writer
Published November 27, 2007
NEW PORT RICHEY - Pasco County plans to put more money into its ride service for doctors visits, jobs and grocery shopping by taking money away from non-profit agencies that transport the ill, the blind and children.
The reduction of up to $196,600 would hit nine agencies. For example, Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind risks losing $12,000 for its ride service - a quarter to half of its annual budget for transporting people.
"If the funding cut goes through, it will be disastrous to us, as it will be to other providers," said Connie Jackson, the Lighthouse executive director in Pasco and Hernando counties.
The proposal, which county commissioners will discuss today, would address Pasco's paratransit ride program for people - mainly seniors or the poor - who are unable to easily get to transit lines.
Pasco officials reduced the ride service in August only to be stung by criticism from displaced riders. Now, a different set of people are bothered.
Lighthouse has 357 clients, some young, but mostly seniors, who rely on its agency for rides to classes on life skills, like cooking, and other training..
The Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay also receives about $20,000 to give students rides from schools to activities.
"We'd have real challenges," said president Ray Opfer, though he said the county's decision is difficult. "If I were to guess, I would say we would have to raise more donations and cut services because we wouldn't be able to make it all up."
The cut could force displaced riders to use the county's service, according to a report to the commission by community services director Adelaida Reyes and Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson.
However, Johnson said the cut might only be partial, depending on the board's decision. Johnson also said nonprofit agencies cater to people with special needs who would not use the county service, which isn't designed for their needs.
That appears to create potentially more trouble. Lighthouse clients, for example, would be without a ride service to help them, Jackson said.
"We just hope they're smart and they don't cut the money," she said of county officials.
The funding cut for nonprofit agencies is part of a $456,000 package of in-house improvements and changes, including doubling fares on March 1.
General bus service would be $1 a ride, and paratransit rides would cost $4. Discount fares for seniors and students and all day passes would go up, too.
The county projects it could raise almost $164,000 more with higher fares, despite an expected dropoff in ridership.
"We're trying to look at how can we best expand the system for everybody, not what's in it for me but what's in it for all," said Ann Hildebrand, whose year as commission chairwoman wraps up today.
After reaching an average of 270 rides a day in July, county officials cut paratransit service to 180 daily trips, citing tight money.
After an outcry, the commission ordered a long-term solution. The resulting plan would average 250 daily trips, according to county estimates. That's higher than monthly averages in 2005 and 2006, but below rates in prior years.
Johnson and transportation director Mike Carroll blamed the cutbacks on flat or declining state and federal money, and rising costs for expensive services.
In addition, the state has shifted $307,000 in annual costs to Pasco for Medicaid-related rides in the next year. County officials hope the changes related to paratransit will help save money for Medicaid rides, too.
But Johnson acknowledged part of the problem is that the county allowed its staff of drivers to dwindle, leaving 11 of 16 positions vacant recently. That caused the county to hire more cabs for rides, increasing costs.
He said hiring will improve and a volunteer driver program will start.
"It looks to me the county's way too reliant on outside sources to provide this service," said Commissioner Michael Cox, who had blasted the August cutbacks.