Good Wheels to Increase Bus Service

After the CEO of Good Wheels gave a report to the Hendry County Board on Tuesday, Dec. 12, about financial troubles the public transit system has faced this year, several commissioners questioned him about complaints they’ve been receiving regarding its service.

In Glades and Hendry counties, the firm has been providing low-cost public transportation for only disadvantaged, disabled and elderly people paid for mostly through state and federal subsidies and grants, although in Lee County, Good Wheels provides regular bus service for everyone. Those limitations in Glades and Hendry are being lifted with increased financing, though, making service available to anyone, Alan Mandel told commissioners after updating them about how the company he heads has dealt with its cash shortage.

From July 2016 through June 2017, he explained, the bus system suffered a loss of about $125,000 because “for some reason, the ridership in Hendry and Glades counties dropped precipitously,” cutting its Medicaid and other reimbursements. And because the state changed when it distributes yearly Federal Transit Administration grants that finance every designated Community Transportation Coordinator (CTC) in Florida, Good Wheels’ coffers were short by $300,000, “and then came Hurricane Irma,” Mr. Mandel said.

“We worked with your EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and we have a claim in to FEMA for about $10,000, but basically our business interruption insurance claim right now, which is being reviewed, is about $250,000, so you add all those up, and it’s about $800,000 — a lot of money. We certainly didn’t have the reserves.”

However, he added: “Here’s where the good news starts, because I don’t want you worried. For the last two years, out of eight, Good Wheels has been profitable — barely, but black is better than red.” Because of that, two Fort Myers banks the company uses expanded its credit line or provided new loans. And Lee County recently awarded it a grant, plus the state Office of Economic Opportunity is guaranteeing half of the small-business disaster loans Good Wheels has taken out, with a three-year maturity date. “So we’ve got a way out of the problem,” he said. Mr. Mandel also presented a check for over $58,000 to repay emergency subsidies Hendry had provided, requesting at the same time that the county release a grant it had approved as the local match for the Transportation Disadvantaged state grant, which Glades County splits with Hendry.

He also explained that because of a tripled state grant for the Clewiston-to-Belle Glade route that he’d been requesting and was finally approved, “we’ve got enough for 8,000 more trips” from now into 2018. “Now, with this funding, anybody can use” Good Wheels’ service, not just disadvantaged or elderly people or Medicaid patients, he said, adding that it let the company establish a route from LaBelle to the iTech (Immokalee Technical) College. “It only has three passengers right now, but we’re doing it anyway because we want to initiate it, get the word out that it’s going to exist,” Mr. Mandel said.

He ended his report by saying that through legislation sponsored by Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-District 78) and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-District 28) that Gov. Rick Scott signed this year, Good Wheels is working with the Florida Department of Transportation on a $225,000 grant for new routing/scheduling software, which he said should be in place by mid-2018. “We’re doing about 13,000 to 14,000 trips a month right now, and they’re scheduling them by hand. It can’t be accurate; it can’t be efficient,” he said. “This routing software is state-of-the-art, and I think it will improve our being on time and reducing costs as well.

“I think actually the number of trips that we’re going to be able to provide up here is going to be far greater than we have in the past. This year, our title as CTC is up for review by you and the Local Coordinating Board which you sit on. We hope you approve us so we can continue doing what we’re doing,” Mr. Mandel concluded, saying he would take questions.

Commissioner Darrell Harris queried what Good Wheels’ budget is and how much of it goes to administrative costs, and Mr. Mandel told him it’s about $5.6 million for the three counties, with 4 percent going for administration, “very low.”

Commissioner Michael Swindle said: “You touched on some of the other serious concerns I have about your organization. ‘Not accurate’ and ‘inefficient’ were the words I heard you say. And I’ve been getting blistered by folks who are being forgotten, being rudely treated. That’s not the way we want to treat our Hendry County residents. I need you to make me feel comfortable that that’s going to come to an end, and you’re going to do better.”

Commissioner Emma Byrd, a member of the Transportation Disadvantaged Board, interjected that those complaints had been brought up at recent meetings and Mr. Mandel had instituted training and also hired different staff to address them. She added: “I was really hard on him because they weren’t picking up the people. I told him, ‘You make us look bad because we assign people to the run but there’s nobody there to pick them up.’”

Mr. Mandel answered: “I really think the amount of trips that we’re being asked to do far exceeds what people can schedule by hand. That’s why this equipment that we’ve been given a grant for will help tremendously. Unfortunately, we still have two drivers who are on medical leave up here, and we haven’t been able to hire anybody.” He said finding people who can pass Level 2 background checks has been very difficult and asked for help with that, noting that not all Good Wheels’ drivers must have commercial drivers’ licenses.

Commissioner Karson Turner noted that Hendry provides about $45,000 a year to Good Wheels, “about a dollar for every constituent,” and questioned Lee County’s contribution, saying that he wanted to see a report detailing how many Hendry/Glades trips are provided. He added, “I do share my colleagues’ concerns with us getting hammered for what the level of service is,” and said he sees too many nearly empty buses. “I struggle with seeing the lack of volume on a bus and getting beat up time and time again over the system and not having an answer for people.”

Mr. Mandel replied: “Part of that is that we’re required to take people at specific times, and it depends how many people who live near each other can be picked up at the same time in order to get them somewhere else at a specific time — that’s the tough part. Remember, part of the expense involved in that is that many of the people who we take to medical appointments are going from wherever they live in LaBelle or Clewiston to maybe Palm Beach, Lee County or Sarasota. And that’s why there aren’t that many on a bus sometimes. Sometimes we have to go all the way down to Miami, or up to Tampa.”

He also explained that the company uses vans in addition to buses and that altered Medicaid rules have made the situation “extremely complicated, but that’s what the system is, and we’re working within it.” Mr. Mandel added that he would continue to work hard on improving operations and customer service.

New Board Chairman Mitchell Wills ended the discussion by saying: “Most of my colleagues’ comments up here, I agree with 100 percent. We need to get more efficient. Hopefully the program that you have coming into place is going to be more efficient. The software … sounds amazing.

“We need to really look into that as Commissioner Turner said, so maybe you can get us a spreadsheet on that and show us exactly what’s going on here,” Chairman Wills concluded, thanking Mr. Mandel for his presentation.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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