PINELLAS PARK — County transportation officials have been battling since mid November with a company that provides rides for the disabled.
At dispute is the amount the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will pay Clearwater Yellow Cab for providing those rides.
The PSTA thinks it should compensate for the cost of the ride less the passengers' $3.50 co-pay.
But Yellow Cab wants it all.
The confusion has prompted the bus agency to rebid the contract. But now it appears that the PSTA was paying the full freight despite the dispute and will continue to do so until the new contract is awarded. Only then will the PSTA move to get the taxpayers' money back.
It's unclear how much PSTA thinks it overpaid. Bills from Oct. 1 through Feb. 15 show the PSTA has paid Yellow Cab about $1.5 million, but not all of that figures into the dispute.
The PSTA contracted with Yellow Cab last year to provide service for disabled riders.
PSTA meant Yellow Cab to be paid a total of $9.05 for most rides. PSTA would have paid the company $5.55 per ride. The remainder would come from passengers, who pay $3.50 for each ride.
But Yellow Cab, and other companies that lost the bid, saw it differently. They think that PSTA was supposed to pay $9.05 per ride and the company was supposed to also get the $3.50 from passengers, for a total of $12.55 per ride.
PSTA director Tim Garling did not return a phone message asking for comment, but spokesman Bob Lasher said that making sure disabled riders continued to receive transportation was a prime factor in the decision to pay the full bill. Yellow Cab had threatened to walk off the job if not paid.
"In good faith, PSTA agreed to continue the past practice of not deducting the fare while billing issues were under dispute. However, notice was given to the vendor that when these issues were resolved, retroactive adjustments would be made as appropriate," Lasher said.
He added, "The time to resolve the fare issue is after the contract has been awarded. All past and future efforts are geared toward assuring that DART (the disabled transport) service is maintained without disruption."
With the contractor handling about 250,000 rides a year, the co-pays add about $875,000.
Board members did not know of the dispute until late January, but Belleair Bluffs Mayor Chris Arbutine, who serves on the PSTA board, said he supports the actions Garling took.
"I have faith in my staff that they are doing a good job," Arbutine said.
"I trust my staff and if they are doing that, it's the right thing to do. We don't want service cut. We have to provide service."
Arbutine said he's not sure why the disputed money was not placed in escrow or even if it could have been held aside. The important thing, he said, was to make sure people got the transportation they needed.
"There's no money being wasted, and the taxpayers have nothing to worry about," Arbutine said.
Fellow board member and Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield agreed the PSTA was facing the possibility that Yellow Cab would walk off the job.
Still, he said he was "surprised" to hear PSTA was paying the higher amount. Brickfield said he was also "confused" over several issues but thought they would be aired out at today's meeting and a firm direction would be set for the future.