Taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize York County bus service, councilman says

adouglas@heraldonline.comMay 20, 2013 

— As the York County Council considered Monday capping the cost of its Access bus service, one councilman recommended eliminating the program or leaving it to operate solely on money from fare-paying passengers.

For the past seven years, the county has subsidized the on-demand transit system. Over the next year, the County Council plans to spend $67,211 on the bus service, which mainly takes senior citizens and people with disabilities to doctor’s appointments and grocery stores.

More than 90 percent of the Access bus program’s budget comes from grants or York County’s general fund.

Taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing what is essentially a taxi service, Councilman Joe Cox said before voting against a proposal to accept federal and state grants for the Access system.

“This thing will never self-support,” he said.

“Most transportation services don’t” support themselves without money from governments, said David Pettine, York County’s planning and development director.

Besides the county money, a federal grant will contribute about $95,000 to the Access program in York County over the next fiscal year. State money will pay $27,700 to help run the service.

None of his constituents uses the Access bus, said Cox, who represents most of western York County.

Other council members defended the transit option while acknowledging that it doesn’t turn a profit for the county or break even.

“If anyone should get any real consideration, it’s the elderly and the disabled,” said Councilman Bruce Henderson, who represents the Clover and Lake Wylie areas.

The Access program is a “small cost” to “give back” to senior citizens who need a ride, said Councilman Bump Roddey, whose district covers much of southern Rock Hill.

The elderly are “totally ignored in our population right now” and sometimes have no other way to reach a doctor’s office other than the Access bus, said council Chairman Britt Blackwell, who represents most of northern Rock Hill.

The non-profit York County Council on Aging operates the Access buses, charging York County for every mile driven when transporting people to and from rural areas.

To help curb the cost to taxpayers, the council gave initial approval Monday to setting a monthly mileage limit for the Access bus starting July 1. Final approval could come next month.

The county’s contract with the Council on Aging also might suggest a fare increase in the coming months. Riders now pay $2.50 per trip.

In August – the busiest ridership month between July 2012 and March 2013 – Access totaled more than 9,000 miles.

That month, the bus service made $1,330 from passenger fares and the county paid $18,000 to the Council on Aging.

By contrast, the buses logged 4,450 miles and brought in about $850 from passenger fares in December, while the county spent about $8,900.

The Council on Aging has asked the county to pay 10 cents more per mile this year than the $2 per mile it is currently paying.

When the service started in 2006, the county paid $1.55 per mile. Rising fuel costs and higher minimum wage for workers has increased the cost of the program.

Passenger fares alone cannot cover the expense of running the Access bus, said Allison Love, county transportation planner.

“It’s purely a service,” she said, not designed to be a money-maker for the Council on Aging or the county.

For a county without a fixed-route bus system, a program like Access is crucial for people without personal vehicles, said Wendy Bell, senior planner at the Catawba Regional Council of Governments.

Neighboring Chester and Lancaster Counties have services similar to Access. Both provide rides to Rock Hill and other cities.

The city of Rock Hill also contracts with the Council on Aging to offer a “Dial-A-Ride” program.

Rock Hill already has a monthly mileage limit on its program, similar to what York County is considering.

Because York County offers the transit option for rural residents, the Access buses cover more miles than Rock Hill’s Dial-A-Ride. Passenger fares Rock Hill’s program pay for about 18 to 22 percent of the cost, compared to about 7 percent of the cost of York County’s program.

Also Monday, the council took another step toward giving York County employees an additional holiday, bringing the total to 11.

Blackwell and Councilman Chad Williams opposed adding the personal day, saying the county didn’t need to spend the extra $31,000 or more right now.

Before the extra holiday is added, the council will need to vote and approve the change next month.

Roddey, who proposed the additional holiday, said York County needs 11 holidays for its employees to keep up with other counties around the state.

On average, S.C. counties give employees 11 holidays, Roddey said. Some counties offer 15 holidays for their employees.

Chester County offers its employees 14 holidays and Lancaster County gives its employees 11 holidays.

If York County doesn’t keep up, Roddey said, good employees will leave.

The council also finalized its plans to sell Knights Stadium in Fort Mill to Cato Corp. for about $844,000 at the start of 2014.

Cato plans to tear down the baseball stadium and develop the land and surrounding property, investing $36 million in a distribution center and creating 130 new jobs.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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