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BOC creates transit alternative for medically disabled

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

With only two weeks left until the closure of the C-TRAN bus service, many in the community have expressed fears that the service's paratransit riders -- many of whom are elderly or medically disabled -- would be left with no means of getting to life-saving doctor's appointments.

This week, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted on what it hopes will be a transportation alternative, to allow riders who qualify, to be transported for the purpose of medical visits. Rather than using money from the county's general fund, commissioners intend to use Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to pay for the service.

On Tuesday, the board voted 4-1 ( with BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell opposed) on two resolutions, which effectively transfer the federal interest in three of the county's six C-TRAN paratransit vans from the Georgia Regional Transit Authority (GRTA) to the county, to be used for a limited transportation service under the management of the Clayton County Senior Services Department, funded by CDBG dollars.

One of the resolutions, No. 2010-78, alters the county's CDBG program requirements, allowing funds to be spent -- up to 15 percent of the county's yearly CDBG allotment -- on maintenance and operation costs, rather than on capital expenditures. The change allows for grant money to be used to operate the transportation service, which according to county officials, will be run by the Clayton County Community Services Authority (CSA), under a sub-contract agreement.

BOC Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, who sponsored the resolutions, said the service demonstrates the board's commitment to "trying to identify real solutions to the problematic economic conditions we're facing."

"This board has taken upon itself to find a way to fund paratransit services throughout this county, who are most in need ... to take the responsibility of using CDBG dollars in order to transport those people to medical appointments and doctors appointments," Ralph said. "It speaks to the fact that the board does care ... that we are committed to serving as many people as we can with the limited dollars we have.

"This adds to a service the Community Service Authority already has," he added. Ralph said the service would only be available to riders who qualify, and are using the service for medical trips, such as doctor's visits and dialysis treatments. He said he was uncertain how much the new service would cost, as of Tuesday.

CSA Executive Director Charles W. Grant said that since 1972, the CSA has operated Clayton Transit, a transportation service for needy seniors, as well as children without transportation, attending Head Start programs. He said the service, which is jointly funded by the county, the CSA, and several state agencies, includes 15 vans and buses and costs approximately $400,000 to operate.

Grant said the three paratransit vans sent to the Seniors Services department would be operated by CSA for the sole purpose of medical trips. He said while Clayton Transit charges riders "$10 to $12 per one-way trip" for the service, the upfront cost would most likely be picked up by the county and state agencies.

"Transportation is quite an expensive endeavor," Grant said. "Gas, oil, maintenance, paying the drivers, insurance ... the cost is across the board. Normally, they [riders] would have to qualify for Medicaid or Medicare for the programs we operate. It [the new service] wouldn't be free. Some agency would be paying for it."

Clayton County Housing and Community Development Director Lance Crawford administers the CDBG grant dollars for the county, which the county uses, at its discretion, to fund special projects and provide grants to local non-profit agencies. He said because the program will be CDBG-funded, the service and its users will have to meet several federal guidelines:

* Documentation must be kept to prove that at least 51 percent of the people using the service have low-to-moderate incomes.

* People under the age of 60 must make 80 percent of the area median income in order to use the service ($40,000 annual salary for a single person and $57,000 annual salary for a family of four).

According to Crawford, the county's fiscal year 2009 CDBG allotment was $2,083,000, and as such, 15 percent of the money, $312,450 at most, could be spent on operating costs for programs such as the paratransit service approved Tuesday.

"You have to factor in what we have already spent on public services," Crawford said. "We don't normally spend money on operations costs, but we have made some exceptions for housing, because that is a major concern right now."

According to Crawford, the county has already given $62,500 of the $312,450 set aside in FY2009 for operations costs to Metro Fair Housing and Southern Crescent Habitat for Humanity, to combat foreclosures. He said the county would likely have to pull money from his department's administration budget ($492,000 of FY 2009 CDBG fund) or from the CDBG contingency fund ($103,000), if it needs additional funds to operate the paratransit service, rather than cutting funding to various non-profit agencies, who are awarded grants from the funds.

"For some of these efforts, money would have to be borrowed, or some of the [county] projects would have to be reduced," Crawford said. "The two logical routes would be to take from the admin[istration] budget or the contingency budget. The Frank Bailey Senior Wellness Center came in a little under budget. There was $1,215,000 in the budget and the successful bid was $941,000. There is still a quarter of a million [dollars] left in there. I think they would have some reservations about reducing some of the non-profit lines."

Dawn Murray, founder of House of Dawn, a transitional housing program for homeless teenage mothers, received a $1,500 grant from the CDBG program in 2009. She said any cuts to CDBG funding would be an extra blow to non-profit organizations that rely on public transit.

"We have a program for homeless teenage mothers and they rely on C-TRAN to get to their jobs, to school, and to their medical appointments," Murray said. "With C-TRAN being gone, we now have to find a way to transport them. Our funding is already being cut in every direction because of the economy. If the community development block grants are cut as well, it's going to be very hard to provide some of the services we provide."

Ralph said the new service would be available on April 1.