UPDATED: The Tioga County Legislature has moved to end bus service in the county effective Nov. 30, 2014. In a unanimous Sept. 18 vote, lawmakers explained their decision as one foisted upon them by the last-minute cut of subsidy funding from Albany through a restructuring of how Medicaid transports are handled.
Legislative Chair Marte Sauerbrey said funding the bus system in Tioga County would cost taxpayers $500,000 this year, and result in a 2 percent tax increase as budget time approaches.
With ever increasing costs across the board, the legislators – some reluctantly – voted to cancel the five-year, $7.85 million contract the county negotiated last year with First Transit to provide bus service.
That contract was negotiated before the cuts from Albany were announced, Legislator Loretta Sullivan (R-Apalachin) explained to the handful of people gathered in the Dougherty Building’s Hubbard Auditorium to observe the vote. When the changes were announced, Sullivan said the state indicated there would not be a significant effect to funding, but many rural counties like Tioga discovered that wasn’t so.
Sullivan said the county has explored several options, from teaming with neighboring counties to changes in routes. Everything was explored in the ten months since the contract with First Transit was ratified, Sullivan and other lawmakers said. There was even some state reimbursement for this year negotiated to offset the $40,000 a month that the buses cost Tioga County. In the end, there was no way the county could continue the contract without adding 2 percent to the tax levy this year.
After some people arrived late, Legislator Dick Huttleston asked Sauerbrey if more people could speak. Sauerbrey replied a short “no” and the meeting moved to the vote to cancel the First Transit contract, and there were no votes against.
Sullivan said the Legislature continued bus service in uncertain financial circumstances because the changes from Albany were so sudden and nobody was prepared, including the estimated 300 people who ride the bus every day. It would not have been right to terminate bus service so quickly, Sullivan said.
However, having left no stone unturned, the Legislature could see no way to continue bus service without an increase in taxes exceeding the 2 percent tax cap from Albany. They could have paid for the bus service to continue, and made drastic cuts across the board to offset increasing expenses, or cancel the previous affordable bus service.
Candor Legislator Bill Standinger said many of his constituents use the bus service to get to work, but there was little choice. “It’s unfortunate that the state has put us in a difficult position,” Standinger said. The staff at the Department of Social Services has worked “tirelessly” to maintain the buses, but no reasonable solution was found.
“This is not the result of inaction,” Standinger said. “We looked at every viable option,” she added. Standinger hopes that a private enterprise will pick up the viable routes and maintain some service for the residents of Tioga County.
Perhaps the kicker is that Tioga County would have been charged coming and going if they had funded the buses. New York still charges the county for Medicaid transports, Director of Administrative Services at DSS Gary Grant said, though he did not have the exact figure Tioga is paying the state to transport Medicaid patients by taxi cab rather than Tioga’s buses. The Department of Social Services oversees the First Transit contract, Grant said.
Grant said there are still talks going on, but for right now the clock is ticking towards the Nov. 30 end of bus service. After that, the county will “liquidate” the buses and other equipment that Tioga County owns, and contracts with third parties like First Transit to operate. When they’re sold, 80 percent of the money goes back to the Federal Government, 10 percent goes to New York, and 10 percent stays in Tioga, Grant said. That mirrors the Federal, State, and local percentages that originally bought the buses 20 years ago.
“If it gets dismantled, it will be difficult to put back together,” Grant said of Tioga County’s bus infrastructure.