The debate over what to do about Palm Beach County's troubled bus service for the elderly and disabled is about to start up again.
In the first of three meetings about Palm Tran Connection, county commissioners on Tuesday will consider a settlement deal that would allow Metro Mobility Management Group out of its five-year, $90 million contract to operate the para-transit service.
On Jan. 28, the commission will hold workshops to discuss possible changes to the service, including whether to have the county operate Palm Tran Connection or hire another private firm.
The county hired national transportation consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard to a $75,000 contract two months ago to study Palm Tran Connection's model and whether the county would be better off bringing the service in-house.
The consultants are tentatively scheduled to attend a Feb. 25 meeting when county commissioners consider recommendations on how to go about replacing Metro Mobility.
Metro Mobility has drawn numerous complaints from riders since its contract started in August 2012. As part of its request to get out of the contract, the company is willing to continue the service until Jan. 31, 2015.
"We are sad that we are in a position that we are giving up multiple years left on this contract, but we think terminating our service early is not only in the best interest of the company but also in the best interests of the county,'' Neil Schiller, an attorney for Metro Mobility, said Thursday.
"We feel that this is a fair deal for everyone involved and hope to rebuild our reputation in the community's trust in us for the last 12 months.''
A sticking point Tuesday could be Metro Mobility's request to be forgiven $2.5 million in fines that the company has racked up for contract violations such as late-arriving and no-show vans, long rides and lost drivers.
Some commissioners balked at that request in November when they unanimously voted to direct county staff to draft the settlement proposal that will be discussed Tuesday.
The proposal commissioners will consider calls for erasing $1.5 million in fines while holding the remaining $1 million "in abeyance" until the so-called "transition period" ends Jan. 31, 2015.
If Metro Mobility is able to maintain a monthly on-time performance standard of 91 percent over the next year, the company would not have to pay the remaining $1 million.
"In my opinion, that's a no,'' said Commissioner Shelley Vana, the commission's loudest critic of Metro Mobility's performance.
Erasing the fines, she said, would set a precedent for other companies that do business with the county. "Why would anybody ever keep their contract with us again?'' Vana asked.
But the Palm Tran Connection contract poses a unique challenge because it would be more expensive for the county if Metro Mobility abruptly walked out on the contract, said Assistant County Administrator Shannon LaRocque.
"If they left tomorrow and we had to do any emergency procurement for a vendor, we would pay significantly more,'' she said. "That's the compromise: You want to get out of the contract, we need you for the transition period, they need more money to be able to do that for the year.''
The settlement deal also calls for the county to collect monthly fines if the company fails to maintain the performance standards. The county can also use Metro Mobility's $1 million performance bond as a way of keeping its service at an acceptable level through the end of the transition period.
"It's not like we just wiped everything clean off the table,'' said LaRocque.
Customers of Palm Tran Connection have vigorously objected to erasing the fines.
"It's always the same thing. They're always late. They treat us like if you are old and sick, you are nobody,'' said Linda Staley of West Palm Beach.
Last Tuesday, when the coldest temperatures of the year swept over South Florida, Staley said she missed a doctor's appointment because a bus arrived nearly two hours after her scheduled 9:30 a.m. pickup time.