Residents put pedal to the metal on Dial-A-Ride
By Paul Myers
exeter – Some of Exeter’s residents most likely to be affected by the loss of Dial-A-Ride were given the opportunity to relay their plight to the city council and staff at last Tuesday’s meeting on March 28. Since first hearing that the Dial-A-Ride service was in financial trouble two weeks ago, residents have been wondering what the fate of the service would be, and what would happen to them.
Shelly Ware, an Exeter resident, relies on the Dial-A-Ride service to get around because of macular degeneration affecting her eyesight and another condition affecting her muscles. Ware said that she is not so unfortunate that she cannot walk but that she is winded quickly. Also because of her poor eyesight she is unable to identify uneven portions of the sidewalk and fears falling.
When she heard the Dial-A-Ride was in danger of being lost she became part of an effort to collect signatures to illustrate its value in the community. By the time she reached city council she had over 250 signatures. But in the course of gathering signatures she realized that most people were not aware that Dial-A-Ride was available to nearly anyone.
“A lot of people don’t realize, they thought they needed to be handicapped or elderly to ride. I told them no, if your car doesn’t start you call Sharl,” Ware stated.
Members at the meeting learned as well that the Dial-A-Ride was also available to children and teens. But that was not always the case. For a few years the City was told by the California Highway Patrol that they had to deny access to children. And while that was later lifted the City was unable to get those riders to return.
Unfortunately the Dial-A-Ride service is not a matter of want or need. Instead it is a matter of budgeting and ridership. According to Exeter finance director Sheri Emerson, the Dial-A-Ride service is funded in part by local transportation funds (LTF) where they receive 50% of the previous year’s expenditures. As a result the amount the City receives in LTF dollars changes from year to year. It is then the task of the City to provide the remaining 50% which comes in part from the general fund. In terms of ridership, the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG) who works as a pass through for the federally sourced LTF, mandates that Dial-A-Ride make up 15% of the service’s cost through the fare box. As city staff noted at the council meeting, even the 15% was difficult to settle on and had to be negotiated down from 20 percent.
Emerson noted that thus far in the year the fare box has made up 3.2% of Dial-A-Ride’s revenue. As well, it was stated at the meeting that in order to meet the 15% fare box recovery, the City would have to charge 10 times what it currently costs which is $1 for seniors and $2 for other riders. But the City also faces another problem, how to fund salaries and benefits if the Dial-A-Ride funding goes away?
Because LTF dollars help make up the cost of the employees who provide the service, without it the City would have to find other ways to pay them or pay them out of the general fund. Exeter city manager Randy Groom noted that is an option the City would rather not take, but it needs to be analyzed.
At the meeting Groom stated that they had tried to find additional revenue for the service via advertising on the sides of the bus. However, he said that there was not much interest in the idea. Jim Tyler, owner of JT Construction and Solar in Exeter, who was in the audience said that he would be willing to lend some advertising dollars if that’s what the City wanted to do.
“I think the advertising route is a good idea. I’ll advertise on the Dial-A-Ride, I’ll be your first customer,” Tyler stated. “Sometimes it isn’t just about the sale. It’s about helping Exeter.”
But according to Groom the advertising option would not have been the silver bullet the service needs. And according to community service director Felix Ortiz there are a couple of ways to preserve a semblance of the Exeter owned and operated service. One is to partner with the Visalia Dial-A-Ride program and the Community Services Employment Training (CSET) organization. CSET would help seniors make appointments with the Visalia Dial-A-Ride in order to be picked up. The second option is to partner with the Church of God of Exeter so they can use their van to help transport seniors. But as of now the details of either option have not been solidified.
Another member in the Exeter audience was Visalia Transportation Department analyst Christy Chavez. Chavez stated that the Visalia Dial-A-Ride currently works with the City of Farmersville to transport their seniors and that it has gone well. Also they have a number of options that might fit for the City of Exeter and their seniors.