February 23, 2019

Bus service maintained

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Tina Hanrahan of Cortland finds her seat on a Cortland Transit bus parked Wednesday outside the County Office Building in Cortland. The county Legislature decided Thursday to continue having Seven Valleys Health Coalition coordinate public transportation.

Seven Valleys Health Coalition staff members wept and hugged in the hallway Thursday night after Cortland County legislators voted on severing ties with the coalition’s mobility management program.

They were tears of joy.

The Legislature voted unanimously against the resolution, leaving the coalition in charge of the program –– meant to improve transportation services to customers, including older adults, people with disabilities and individuals with lower incomes.

“I’m surprised,” said Jackie Leaf, executive director of the coalition, wiping the final drops of tears from her face.

She expected the vote to be split. In November, she received a letter from Legislature Chairman Kevin Whitney (R-Cortlandville) stating the county had decided to end its relationship with the coalition. The Agriculture, Planning and Environmental Committee endorsed a resolution earlier this month to move the program to the county planning department.

Then came Thursday night’s public hearing. Leaf and three other people associated with the coalition spoke in favor of the program staying with the agency.

“I think what happened is legislators listened to the public tonight and previous to this, sticking close to their constituency,” said Legislator Sandra Price (D-Virgil, Harford), the committee chairwoman. “They heard the message, and the vote reflected that.”

Jan Dempsey, the coalition’s former mobility management coordinator, said during the hearing the coordinator position is needed in the community to hear and address people’s issues.

“Many people need the mobility manager as their voice,” Dempsey said.

The concerns

Whitney’s letter to Leaf stated there were concerns about the quality of the bus service provided by First Transit — putting some of the responsibility on the coalition — and the coalition’s contract with the county expired at the end of 2017 and the state funding for the program ran out in February.

Before voting, Whitney took issue with the fact the coalitions spent $90,000 of its own funds after being told there was no further funding and to stop providing the program. However, during the public hearing, Leaf said the county had already approved and submitted an application to the state — created by the coalition — for 2017-18 mobility management funding.

The county received a letter from the state in June noting its application was recommended to be funded. The grant, which also helps buy buses and cover operating funds for public transportation, would set aside about $140,000 for the mobility management program –– close to a third of Seven Valleys’ budget.

Leaf said a lag time in receiving funding is common. The county didn’t receive its 2015-16 funding until December 2016.

Whitney argued, again before the vote, the letter from the state only indicated the funded had been recommended, not that the county was actually receiving it.

However, Legislator Beau Harbin (D-Cortland) said he had spoken with the state Public Transportation Department director, who told him the contract is expected to be sent either today or next week.

“This is not going to be we’re waiting another year or more,” Harbin said.

In regard to the bus service concerns, Leaf has stated the coalition has worked with First Transit to address issues, but it never had the authority to control First Transit.

The decision

Before voting on the resolution. the Legislature took a 10-minute recess for legislators to discuss how to move forward with the resolution. They came back and all voted against it.

Legislators Doug Bentley (D-Cortland), Tom Hartnett (DCortland) and Ann Homer (DCortland) were absent.

“It is very clear Seven Valleys is very passionate about the mobility transit program, and the county looks forward to them continuing to address the mobility management issues of our county, especially First Transit,” Whitney said.

However, he still has concerns. Whitney said there’s still no funding, and legislators question how much could be done with the program because the funding that does come has, in essence, already been spent.

“Until all of that comes together there’s not a lot for us to do,” Whitney said.

While Leaf is happy legislators defeated the resolution, she said the county and coalition still need to work together.

“They need to be able to clearly articulate what issues brought us to this point,” Leaf said. “I’m looking forward to the phone calls tomorrow and when we can get together and we can sit down and figure out what do we need to do different so we don’t get to this point again.”

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