The saga of the Red Rabbit fixed-route bus service ended Wednesday with the Hall County Board of Commissioners approving an agreement with Gainesville, but it didn’t end quietly.
The end of the commission meeting was marked with fireworks as two commissioners took aim at comments made by city officials Tuesday night when the Gainesville City Council approved the agreement that allows the Red Rabbit to continue operating past July 1.
The bus service is part of Hall Area Transit, a program of the jointly funded Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center. Commissioners voted last month not to seek about $400,000 in federal funding for the service, putting it in jeopardy unless the city agreed to take over. The Federal Transit Administration pays 50 percent of the operating cost and the city and the county had split the rest.
The intergovernmental agreement between the city and the county transfers all financial responsibility and assets to Gainesville as of July 1, while the county will assume total responsibility for the curbside Dial-A-Ride bus service in fiscal year 2015. The city will operate the Dial-A-Ride service for the next fiscal year.
“We are disappointed by the actions of those Hall County commissioners who have withdrawn their support of the community service center services, including the Senior
Center, Meals on Wheels, community outreach and public transit,” City Councilwoman Ruth Bruner read from a statement Tuesday night. “The decision by the board of commissioners to insert a
deadline of June 30, 2014, in the intergovernmental agreement suggest a lack of commitment to the services of the Community Service Center and leaves operation of these vital programs uncertain.”
The statement also expressed a hope that in the future the services or the center wouldn’t be “under attack.”
Commissioner Scott Gibbs said those views don’t represent his position. Speaking only for himself and not the commission, he said center Director Phillippa Lewis Moss and the City Council either misunderstood the point the county was making or was trying to “unnecessarily scare” employees and clients of the center.
“I know my own special needs child may rely on some of the center’s services one day, so I deeply resent the implication by Ms. Moss and the City Council that this commission does not care about the people being served, especially the people that rely on Meals on Wheels and Dial-A-Ride (bus service).”
Gibbs directed many of his comments toward Moss, saying she refused to follow county procedures, asked for grant approvals on the day the contracts were due or were late and denied the commission members information on how money for services was spent.
“She would come in say ‘I’ve got to have it, I’ve got to have it today,” Gibbs said. “That’s not how we operate, we have checks and balances in place to protect everyone.”
Commissioner Craig Lutz said the point is that the commission needs to know how the money is being spent and there are programs that may need to be scaled back or eliminated.
“I agree with a lot of what Commissioner Gibbs has said today,” Lutz said. “I think the point just needs to be made, we’re not trying to create an adversarial relationship, we’re just trying to do what we feel is the responsibility to the taxpayer.”
When asked if the commission chose the best way to handle the situation, Lutz said its decisions were based on a situation the city created. It’s his opinion city officials bring issues to the county at the last minute to force the board to make decisions at that moment, rather than allowing the commissioners to thoughtfully develop a solution.
“I think the commission said, ‘I think they’re bluffing,’” he said. “And I believe we called them on their bluff and, as you can see, we’re now in a situation where we are down the road to getting a better solution than what we had before by having them operate that particular part of the system.”
Lutz said there are other Community Service Center programs, such as Meals on Wheels, the county should have discussions about to determine the appropriate way to do them. He suggested at the county work session Monday adding the 2014 deadline on the intergovernmental agreement about the bus service.
In other business, Commissioner Billy Powell said the county was very close to purchasing land for a new fire station. He declined to say more, citing exceptions in the Open Meetings Act. However, he said he expects the sale to be done by the next board meeting on May 22.