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GPT talks; Group discusses potential ways to save General Public Transportation

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Plans are potentially in place to save the General Public Transportation program, which is looking for funding to help meet a local match for a grant the service receives and keep its wheels turning.

A local group working to find solutions met Tuesday morning at City Hall for a fact-finding session and discussion about the service, which is operated by Bourbon County Senior Citizens Inc. and offered to anyone in the community. Officials estimate they need to come up with around $9,000 by June 30 or the service will most likely have to shut down.

"The community has an issue we need to address," City Manager Dave Martin said.

The meeting involved city officials, including Martin, Director of Finance Jon Garrison, Economic Development Director Macy Cullison and Commissioner Sam Mason; representatives of Bourbon County Senior Citizens, including President Jolynne Stainbrook and Deb Needleman; and representatives of the Fort Scott Area Chamber of Commerce, including Executive Director Lindsay Madison and board member Mark McCoy.

Bourbon County Senior Citizens Coordinator Jacqueline Sellers was also present to provide information about the service.

"We're short about $9,000 due to increased costs and decreased funding," said Needleman said, who serves as secretary and treasurer for the Bourbon County Senior Citizens board.

Needleman said the service has recently seen a decrease in state funding for part of the matching grant it receives. A federal matching grant covers 50 percent of the operating cost for the service, the state funds 15 percent and GPT has to raise the rest locally, Needleman said.

Also factored in are recent hikes in fuel costs and insurance, the latter of which Needleman said "was a huge hit for us.

"We're such a small program and we have so few vehicles ... They don't insure those vehicles without difficulty," she said.

Other than the grant, the service is also funded by an investment, Bourbon County and the United Way of Bourbon County.

The investment, a $100,000 donation which GPT received in 2005 and put into an investment account, has since dwindled. Needleman said that fund "took a huge hit" in the economic downturn of 2008.

"That fund was exhausted this past year," Needleman said.

Needleman said the county has also undergone budget cuts and recently slashed "5 percent across the board things they were funding." The state has also decreased funding in recent years.

The service should be OK through June, Needleman said, but needs to raise funds for the 2013-14 year, which runs from July through June.

"We're struggling, but we have some reduced costs and cut back on some salaries," she said.

The service pays drivers and dispatchers and has one full-time employee and four part-time staffers.

Needleman said the service currently runs three vehicles; two vans and one large bus with a wheelchair lift. Needleman said a proposal being considered is to eliminate one of the vans by turning it over to the state to save on insurance costs. She said it is not currently an option to sell a vehicle for the money.

City officials have taken numerous calls from residents on the matter, requesting the city do something to try to save the service, which is the sole mode of transportation for many people, who use GPT to go shopping or to work, travel to medical or dental appointments and other reasons such as visiting family, hair appointments or car breakdowns.

At its height several years ago, Needleman said the service ran three vehicles six days a week, but has more recently had to cut its operations back to eight hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and Tuesdays and Thursdays by appointment only.

Funds to meet the match for the grant would need to be committed and in place by about late March, Needleman said.

"They document where the money comes from," she said. "We have to show where the local funds are coming from to get the grant approved. We need to go back to the state with where those matching funds would come from no later than the latter part of March."

If the community comes up with the needed funds, there is a better chance of getting the grant approved and keeping the service going, Needleman said.

One option discussed Tuesday was to try and have the service absorbed into a similar program operated by the Southeast Kansas Community Action Program (SEK-CAP), which could make rides available locally.

"They operate a transportation program covering several counties," Needleman said. "One of our thoughts is to talk with them. We've had some preliminary conversations (with SEK-CAP) about absorbing our transportation program and providing it in our area."

The SEK-CAP program, based in Girard, covers a broad area of Southeast Kansas and receives some of the same grant funding as the local transportation program, plus some funding from the Kansas Department of Transportation, Needleman said.

Another plan is to talk to area businesses where customers of General Public Transportation are dropped off regularly about possibly committing funds to the service.

Bourbon County Senior Citizens Inc. also offers other services, including Meals on Wheels and the storing and distribution of commodities. Needleman said these services haven't been affected and will continue. She said the eventual hope is to transition out of the transportation business due to expenses and focus solely on offering programs geared toward senior citizens.

"We're a small entity; we want to eventually get out of the transportation business and focus on senior programs," she said. "Costs are becoming more and more burdensome. Maybe we can put it with a larger entity that deals with it (transportation) on a more regular and larger scale basis."

Martin said no decisions needed to be made Tuesday, and the group scheduled another meeting for 10 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, to go over fact sheets outlining all expenses that will be put together. Garrison and others plan to look at the numbers, review expenses and determine an exact amount that needs to be raised.

"So we can see exactly where we're at and what we need," Martin said Tuesday. "We can't get those today."

Martin reiterated that the city does not fund the GPT service, but does need to play a role in finding a solution to keep the service going.

"I think we're all agreed we need to move forward with this," he said. "The city cannot make any commitments. It's not in our budget. But the city should help."

Sellers said the service provided 651 total rides in December and typically averages 600-900 rides per month. The dispatcher keeps a log of riders and the center keeps totals on riders, expenses and income for the year.

GPT raised fares $1 -- from $2 per ride to $3 per ride -- last February due to increasing fuel costs and decreasing grant funding in recent years. Customers may purchase a bus pass for $30 entitling them to 12 rides. Good for six months, the pass provides two free rides.

"Numerous citizens I've talked to say they have no problem with the current rate," Martin said.



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