November 30, 2021

Questions if mobility plan goes to county

Cortland County legislators will consider transitioning the mobility management program from Seven Valleys Health Coalition to the county Planning Department today, but no plan exists yet for a transition, the planning department director said.

The coalition has run the county’s mobility management program, which is funded through state grants, for the past decade.

The budget and plan for the program, which the county submits to the state to apply for the grants, has been written by the coalition, said Jackie Leaf, Seven Valleys executive director.

If the transition of the program is approved, county Planning Department Director Dan Dineen said Tuesday no plans have been made yet to do it.

The program is meant to improve transportation services to customers, including older adults, people with disabilities and individuals with lower incomes.

The coalition had a full-time mobility management coordinator, who recently retired. But the program also took up a portion of Leaf’s time and administrative support, Leaf said.

“It is hard to say if the county would hire a person (as the mobility manager), or if the duties would go to existing staff (in the Planning Department),” Dineen said.

The Planning Department has four people who have their own work load already, Dineen said. Whether his staff could handle the mobility management program, Dineen said, “we’ll certainly do what we can.”

In November, Legislature Chairman Kevin Whitney (R-Cortlandville) sent Leaf a letter stating the county decided to end its relationship with the coalition. He stated there were concerns raised by local advocates for persons with disabilities and staff at the coalition about the quality of bus services provided by First Transit Inc., of Cincinnati, Ohio.

“From our perspective, the issues are a matter of accessibility, making sure people with disabilities have access to things, especially if they have no vehicle,” said Aaron Baier, executive director for Access to Independence of Cortland County –– a non-profit that helps people with disabilities.

He would like to see the bus service add accommodations such as extended services to nights and weekends, expanded routes to contiguous counties and increasing rural connectivity in places like McGraw and Cincinnatus.

That would allow people better access to jobs and allow them to be more involved in their community, Baier said.

Whitney has stated there have been further issues with the bus service, such as Tompkins Cortland Community College students being stranded.

Baier said typically a complaint about the bus service would be referred to Seven Valleys Health Coalition and the mobility management coordinator.

From there, the coordinator would reach out to First Transit to find out what the issue is, Leaf said. Ongoing issues were reported on at the monthly Cortland County Transportation Advisory Committee — run by Dineen.

Leaf said the coalition could work with First Transit, but never had authority over First Transit.

“We are the liaison between the community and the county and transit provider,” she said.

However, Dineen said that when an issue with the buses arise, he would be the one to implement a change. The issues with students getting stranded has been resolved, he said.

He couldn’t say if the county would be able to run the program cheaper than Seven Valleys Coalition, because the state has not executed the 2017-18 period grant –– which would be more than $1 million for the period to help fund the program, purchasing new buses and operating assistance for public transportation.

The state sent a letter was sent to the county at the end of June stating the grant application — which the coalition helped draft — was approved. However, the county has yet to receive it and there has been no indication of when it will.

But that is not uncommon, Leaf said. There was also a lag time in receiving the 2016-17 period funding.

The county’s contract with the coalition expired at the end of 2017. The funding for the program then dried up in February. It was one of the main reasons Whitney cited November letter to end the relationship.

However, having worked with the county for years, dealing with the lag time in funding before, the coalition spent $90,000 to continue the program, expecting the funding to eventually come in.

“All non-profits have to cope with this reality; we all continue providing services for the county in good faith until the county receives the grant funds and reimburses retroactively,” Leaf said in a written statement.

The coalition has not asked the county to reimburse it, yet, Leaf said.

“We keep hounding the state to push along the contracts so we can get paid, but we are willing to wait for the contracts to be in place before we are paid,” she said.

However, if the county takes over the program, it would get the mobility management program funding, and Whitney has said “there is no assurance the funding can be used for previous expenses.”

Whitney stated in his letter, “The county will consider reimbursing Seven Valleys Health Coalition for any expenses directly related to the mobility management program that were incurred prior to 11/6/2018.”

The county will not consider expenses incurred after that date, he added.

Leaf said the county’s decision to potentially end its relationship with the coalition blindsided her and could cripple the agency.

“Everything would be affected,” she said. The coalition is a non-profit that provides programs and services to improve health in the community.

The coalition has already filed a grievance with the state Comptroller’s Office, asking for the mobility management funding to be given directly to the coalition.