Getting rid of the operator of Palm Beach County's beleaguered busing service for the disabled and elderly comes with costly consequences for the public, under a deal approved Tuesday.
The county's settlement deal to part ways with Metro Mobility Management Group could allow the company to avoid $2.4 million in fines for poor performance, racked up during a year of rider complaints about everything from late drivers to filthy buses.
The company could also receive $1.6 million more than originally intended under an agreement for Metro Mobility to keep operating Palm Tran Connection until the end of the year while the county looks for a replacement.
That's worth it in order to allow time to make a change without disrupting service to some of the county's most vulnerable riders, according to county commissioners who approved deal. They worried that without a settlement, Metro Mobility could shut down without a replacement ready.
"If we don't accept the settlement, it's going to even be worse," said County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, who called it a "sad day for Palm Beach County." "We have put ourselves in this predicament."
Palm Tran Connection is the county's door-to-door, call-ahead transit service for disabled and elderly riders. It enables them to get to doctor's appointments, work, the grocery store and other vital destinations.
The county in 2012 tried to save money by making Metro Mobility the primary operator of Palm Tran Connection, instead of the past practice of using more than one company to serve the largest county in Florida.
Metro Mobility in 2012 started a five-year, $90 million contract to lead Palm Tran Connection. Metro Mobility provides privately operated buses, vans and cars and also uses subcontractors with their own vehicles to supplement services.
Problems started just as Metro Mobility began operating Palm Tran Connection in August 2012. Since then, riders have complained about delays, accidents, dirty buses, maintenance backlogs and other service problems.
In July, Metro Mobility fended off a push to force out the company, instead agreeing to bring in help to improve service.
But in November, without finding reinforcements, Metro Mobility suggested trying to reach a settlement with the county to let the company out of its Palm Tran Connection contract.
Commissioner Shelley Vana said county staffers should be held accountable for not doing more to correct Palm Tran Connection service problems sooner.
"There certainly were repercussions for all the [riders] who suffered," Vana said. "We have not done a good job [for] the taxpayers."
The deal approved Tuesday could keep Metro Mobility on board until January 2015, while the county searches for another provider. The deal also enables keeping the company beyond that on a month-to-month basis if more time is needed for the transition.
The deal lessens some of Metro Mobility's equipment and vehicle requirements. The added $1.6 million in potential payments to the company would be due to claims of increased operating expenses.
As for the fines for falling short of contract requirements, the deal requires the county to immediately waive about $1.4 million in fines and then waive another $1 million at the end of the new contract, if service doesn't slip.
"We think it's a fair deal for all," said attorney Neil Schiller, who represents Metro Mobility.
Public transit advocate Tomas Boiton questioned waiving Metro Mobility's fines, as well as the new deal allowing drivers to pick up or drop off riders within one hour of the scheduled time instead of the current 30-minute standard.
"There are a lot of issues," Boiton, of Citizens for Improved Transit, said about the settlement.
County Administrator Robert on Tuesday acknowledged that a change was needed, but defended the original proposal to hire Metro Mobility. He pointed out that the company's bid was about $1.5 million per year less than its competitors and came during the economic downturn, when the county faced a budget crunch.