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Red Rabbit in peril after commissioner's vote not to renew funding

POSTED: April 11, 2013 1:10 a.m.

Despite an earlier commitment to buy seven buses, Hall County’s leaders decided Wednesday night not to pursue $400,000 in funding to help keep a shared transit service with Gainesville operating after July 1.

A Hall County Board of Commissioners vote to apply for operating money from the Federal Transit Administration failed to pass, with Commissioners Craig Lutz, Billy Powell and Scott Gibbs opposing the grant application and Chairman Richard Mecum and Commissioner Jeff Stowe in favor.

The commission did direct Marty Nix, assistant county administrator, to set up meetings with Gainesville to discuss future operations.

The two governments operate and help fund Hall Area Transit, which operates a countywide curbside van service, Dial-A-Ride, and Red Rabbit buses that circulate on fixed routes primarily in and around Gainesville.

“Fundamentally I think it’s time for restructuring, and I think I’ve made that case before,” Lutz said. “I feel like it’s time to bring (the Hall County portion of Dial-A-Ride) in-house.”

As for Red Rabbit, he added, “I think it’s time for that to be the city of Gainesville’s and some other entity.

“The problem I’m having is, of course, we own all the rolling stock and 100 percent of the liability. My concern going forward is we’re putting all the citizens of the county at (a) tremendous amount of risk.”

Gibbs said, “The problem is that bus drivers are city of Gainesville employees — they don’t work for the county, but we have the liability.”

Bill Moats, the county’s human resources director, said he was only aware of one lawsuit against the transit service, but 20 claims have been filed since June 2008.

“We carry all the liability, but the driver belongs to the city of Gainesville, and we don’t have any control over that driver,” Moats said.

“If a driver is found at fault and there are expenses with regards to covering the health and well-being of that driver, the city of Gainesville covers that,” said Community Service Director Phillippa Lewis Moss, whose department oversees Hall Area Transit.

“When the system was set up, it was designed to share assets and liabilities. ... Now, you may perceive that, that splitting is unfair. We can always address that,” she added.

Powell said he’s “been looking at those insurance numbers” and that it looks as if “we’ve paid out about $95,000 in those 20 claims.”

“The drivers don’t have accountability to Hall County,” he said. “We’re responsible for the rolling stock. We’re currently not doing the maintenance. We have all the insurance — physical damage and liability for the vehicles.

“I just think it’s time to revisit this arrangement.”

Lutz said that if “by refusing the (federal) grant ... it expedites the discussion we need to have (with Gainesville), then so be it.”

Mecum disagreed: “I think we can have our cake and eat it, too. I think we can have the discussion and approve the grant at the same time.”

“Well said,” Moss said.

“That way, at least we keep our citizens ... and employees moving and leave the discussions to the politicians,” Mecum said, generating some laughter in the audience.

Moss said she was generally concerned about the city and county publicly airing out the issue.

“It’s pretty traumatizing to our transit-dependent passengers but also to our employees,” she said.

“They’re quite despondent over this discussion — not that it would occur, but that it’s occurring publicly,” added Moss.

Stowe said he hated to see the county pass on a grant “not knowing where the future’s going and then all of the sudden we decide we’re going to keep this (service) and now we don’t have that money set aside in the budget.

“And we have to pull another $250,000 to $300,000 out of our budget ... when we could have had this in grant funds.”

Lutz said that while he understood Stowe’s point, “the timing of this coming up is not this commission’s fault.

“This should have been dealt with probably at a much earlier time.”

Moss reapproached the commission after it had wrapped up a public hearing on a rezoning matter, seeking a clarification of the commission’s action.

“What it boils down to is we have between now and July 1 to make a decision on this?” Mecum asked, looking at County Attorney Bill Blalock.

“I haven’t seen the contract, but I would assume,” Blalock said. “We would need to look at it, and that very well may be the case.”

“Are you referring to the ... operating contract?” Moss asked.

“No, the intergovernmental agreement with the city,” Blalock said.

“Right, but you do recognize that these operating funds will not be available forever,” Moss said. “They do come to an end.

“And you do recognize that your negotiation power will go down extremely if you have not provided the city of Gainesville or any other entity with the option of having federal funds?”

Lutz jumped into the discussion.

“I think the whole conversation, at this point, has been settled,” he said.

“I just needed to get clarification, as a staff person, so I know what I’m doing,” Moss said.

“How about we get clarification after the (commission) meeting is done? The vote’s been taken,” Lutz said.

Moss hurriedly left after the meeting was adjourned without commenting on the commission’s action.


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