Judging by the numbers, the company that transports Palm Beach County’s elderly and disabled each day is doing better since its disastrous start last year running the county’s Palm Tran Connection service. The problem is, it’s impossible to trust the numbers.
As county government officials who oversee the company admitted this week, drivers for Metro Mobility Management Group have been caught fudging the company’s arrival times, an apparent effort to make on-time performance look better. County officials say the problem appears limited, but Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman nonetheless called it “a legitimate issue and a legitimate concern.”
So it’s difficult to take the company’s suddenly stellar performance entirely at face value. Yes, service has improved since last year, when the company’s drivers were leaving thousands of riders stranded each week, often for more than an hour. But has it risen at last to acceptable levels? There is no way of knowing for sure, because Palm Tran Connection’s drivers (many of whom don’t even work for Metro Mobility but for subcontractors) report their performance statistics themselves. Essentially, they grade their own tests.
This uncomfortable fact emerged Tuesday during a meeting of county commissioners, where Metro Mobility had come to ask forgiveness for the company’s past sins. Per the terms of the county’s 5-year, $90-million contract with the company, which took over control of Palm Tran Connection last August, the county had fined Metro Mobility $1.4 million. Much of the penalty was for the company’s record of making clients wait outlandish periods for their scheduled rides. Metro Mobility wanted commissioners to forgive two-thirds of that, arguing that many of the early fines were due to delays stemming from another company’s challenge to the county’s hiring decision.
It is far too soon for any talk of forgiveness, however, and commissioners were right to postpone a decision until July. What commissioners need is credible evidence of sustained improvement. The company says it is now picking up 94 percent of its clients on time, comfortably over the 91-percent minimum required by its contract. Tracking devices being installed in all the company’s vans and cars will soon make measuring performance easier. Only then can questions of whether to forgive fines or keep the company at all be responsibly entertained.
for The Post Editorial Board