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For many residents, Hall Transit is the only way to ride
Bus service fills key need, but budget issues may put its future in danger
Hall Area Transit driver Rufus Randolph checks his passengers' safety belts Wednesday afternoon before leaving the Gainesville-Hall County Senior Life Center.

A white Hall Area Transit bus pulls up to the Avita Community Service clinic in Gainesville and its doors open.

Five adults, all of whom receive treatment at the mental health clinic but do not drive, enter and take a seat. Each will be dropped off their driveways.

Deborah, a 60-year-old woman with developmental disabilities, is getting a ride back to Murrayville after group therapy session Wednesday.

While most Gainesville and Hall County residents are more familiar with the Red Rabbit buses, which run on fixed routes, this is Hall Area Transit's lesser-known paratransit program. The white Dial-A-Ride buses pick up residents from their homes and take them to doctors offices, shopping areas and other vital services.

"The majority of people who use the service are transit-dependent," said Phillippa Lewis Moss, the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Director. "They have no other way of getting to appointments. This transportation system means everything to them."

Take for example, Deborah, whose husband works full time. For him to drive Deborah from Murraysville to Gainesville three times a week would be difficult — if not impossible — she said.

But through a grant received by Hall Area Transit, Deborah doesn't even pay for her rides.

"If I didn't have this bus, I wouldn't have anyone to take me here," she said.

However there are some doubts whether the Dial-A-Ride and other Community Service Center projects will remain intact after last summer's budget negotiations.

Last year, Hall County slashed $180,000 in funding to the Community Service Center — which runs the Senior Life Center and Hall Area Transit — in route to balancing an $11.5 million deficit. This year, commissioners hesitated to renew transit grants.

Commissioner Ashley Bell said depending on the outcome of local option sales tax reports, the county could likely face another budget deficit this year. Bell fears funding for the Community Service Center could be on the chopping block again.

One of the chief services of the Dial-A-Ride program is to offer free transportation for medical appointments for Georgia Department of Human Services consumers like Deborah.

The Coordinated Transportation Program is federally funded and run through DHS, which contracts with regional transportation services.

Hall Transit receives a $220,000 grant to run the service, with any difference in cost made up by the city of Gainesville and Hall County. Moss said each pays about $3,000 annually into the program, which provides 15,000 rides annually.

In addition to residents like Deborah, the program also serves people like Claudine Lewis, 78, and Maudine Williams, 81, who get rides to the Senior Life Center in Gainesville from their homes in Lula twice a week. Both women say the interaction at the center and the bus ride itself has become an anticipated routine in their lives.

However, like many government services, this one could come under the microscope from county officials concerned about controlling the budget and looking for things they can afford to cut.

Earlier this month, the Board of Commissioners accepted the $220,000 grant to continue the program through 2012. But before agreeing at a work session meeting, Commissioners Scott Gibbs and Craig Lutz wanted assurances that if the budget situation got dire, the county would be able to pull out and not still be on the hook for additional expenses.

At the meeting, Gibbs warned, "There could be big budget cuts moving forward, especially with nonprofits."

Meanwhile, commissioners are also looking to the private sector, charity groups or volunteers to take responsibility for those services.

On the Coordinated Transportation Program, commissioners asked Moss to seek private transit services to accept the grant. Moss said the county has reached out to the private sector, but profit margins for the service are too low to attract them.

After the meeting, Moss admitted the reluctance from commissioners to continue the program is leaving her uneasy about the budget process when it resumes this summer.

The Times was unable to reach Gibbs or Lutz for comment.

However, Bell said he intends to fight for services like Dial-A-Ride. He said he'll try to convince other board members to explore a program's reach before scrapping them,

"This program provides so much to so many people," he said. "These aren't just line items we can cut and not expect to have an effect."