County commissioners ordered Metro Mobility Management Group, the troubled provider of paratransit services, to find one or more companies to help it provide acceptable service to elderly and disabled riders. Commissioners gave Metro until Nov. 5 to present them with a working transition plan.
Commissioners put aside a decision on what to do about $2.2 million in fines Metro accumulated through almost a year of late vans, poor vehicle maintenance and other serious flaws, but they agreed that Metro should pay some portion of the fines. They asked county staff members to provide them with options on how to handle the fines when they meet in November.
Palm Tran Connection riders — several of whom were blind or in wheelchairs — and rider advocates told commissioners that Metro pledged more than it could deliver when it promised last year it could take over service seamlessly. In the first four months of Metro’s tenure, riders told commissioners they had been left for hours after medical appointments or never picked up at all. Complaints quadrupled during August and September.
The staff analysis of Metro’s performance since it started as sole provider on Aug. 13 had some bright spots. On-time service had improved to 94-95 percent, but its accident rate has stayed higher than contract specifications and many of its vehicles should be replaced, according to a county report released last week.
Metro attorney Neil Schiller said when county commissioners put Metro on notice in January that it must improve its customer service, Metro put service improvement ahead of the other issues, such as vehicle safety.
“We focused on performance,” said Schiller. “Sometimes you can’t do all things at once.” He promised commissioners that Metro would turn its attention to the other issues of contract compliance immediately.
Citing an extremely steep learning curve, Schiller told the commission, “We’re sorry for the missed trips, we’re sorry for not meeting on-time performance goals, we’re sorry for a lot of things.” He said Metro owner Cullan Meathe, who did not speak at the meeting, “had integrity as a business owner,” calling some unhappy riders as many as four or five times.
“We accept some if not all of the responsibility for where we are today.”
Schiller promised commissioners that Metro would be “fully compliant” with its contract by Nov. 5, when the commission has ordered another status report. Assistant county administrator Shannon LaRocque said she and Metro executives had been meeting every Friday and would continue to do so for the next few months.
Rider advocate Tomas Boiton pointed out after the meeting that Schiller neglected to mention that Metro’s service improvement coincided with Palm Tran employees taking over all scheduling duties in February.
In other areas, Metro was tardy in reaching goals set by its June 2012 contract. Bettye Jones, one of Metro’s minority subcontractors, said her gasoline bills were running to $14,000 a month or more and she feared her business, which started in 1997, might go under. Metro was supposed to supply her with cheaper-to-operate propane powered vehicles but did not do so until this month.
LaRocque, who recently took over oversight of Metro, said Metro installed 185 tablet-size vehicle location devices in its vehicles but they were not fully operational because the power charging cords that connect them to the vehicles had not yet been delivered. The devices, which were supposed to be installed a year ago, became the center of contentions by riders and county commissioner Shelley Vana that Metro drivers and dispatchers were fudging their on-time reports.
LaRocque said staffers made random calls to 5,000 riders, whose responses were “very positive and confirmed the (on-time) rate.”
Metro’s accident ratio exceeded its contractual requirement to have one or less accidents of any kind per 100,000 miles, LaRocque said. The breakdown chart showed a steep increase, “mostly due to the age of the vehicles.”
LaRocque said 56 Metro vehicles exceed the mileage limit of 250,000 miles or five years of use.
Metro’s selling point in June 2012 was that it would save Palm Tran $16 million over its five-year contract. Instead of saving $3.3 million in the past year, Metro ended up costing $2.2 million more than anticipated, LaRocque said.
Metro ran up $2.2 million in fines for contract violations, despite an annual cap of $100,000 in fines.
“They exceeded that in the first two weeks,” said LaRocque.
LaRocque said she projected a $6.8 million budget impact over the next four years.
Palm Tran Connection is the federally mandated door-to-door service for elderly and disabled riders, who pay a subsidized fare and often have limited incomes. Palm Tran head Chuck Cohen told commissioners he would like them to consider a fee increase, which they will discuss in August.
What the Post reported
Post reporter Lona O’Connor was the first to report in October the numerous complaints filed with Palm Tran Connection since Palm Tran hired a single company instead of three to provide service.