PINELLAS PARK — County bus officials think they have a solution that will solve the recent problems with transportation for the disabled and make everybody happy.
The solution allows disabled riders to choose which taxi company they want to ride with. The system, approved at Wednesday's Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board meeting, is set to begin Oct. 4.
The agency will have to terminate its three-year contract with Clearwater Yellow Cab for the new system to be implemented. The company and the PSTA have been embroiled in a months-long dispute over the amount the taxi service is paid to drive disabled passengers.
The two had reached a tentative agreement, but that included continuing the contract. PSTA officials say they will continue negotiations for settlement of the disputed amount, but it is unclear how receptive Yellow Cab will be.
Under the current system, the PSTA contracts with one taxi company to provide transportation for disabled riders. The rider pays a $3.50 co-pay, and the PSTA pays the remainder of the agreed-upon price. The cab company bills the PSTA at the end of each month, which add up to about 250,000 rides each year.
Under the new system, PSTA would decide what it wants to pay and would allow companies to apply to be put on a list. The companies that provide rides would have to meet the same PSTA standards for safety and other issues that Yellow Cab had to meet. Riders would call their preferred cab company on the PSTA list and give the driver the $3.50 co-pay. Each company would bill PSTA each month.
What the new plan will cost is unclear, but it is estimated to be between $3.7 million and $4.2 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year. That's about $500,000 more than the current program.
The choice plan is based on one run by the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Authority for some Medicaid recipients.
PSTA board members liked the idea, saying it would please all passengers because they could choose the company that suited them best.
"This is a wonderful option," said Susan Latvala, who is also a Pinellas County commissioner. She called the idea a "no-brainer."
But Latvala and other board members said PSTA executive director Tim Garling needed to revamp the procurement process to prevent problems like those that have plagued the agency for the past few months.
The main tangle has been over the amount of money Yellow Cab would receive for each ride. The company thought it had contracted to receive both the co-pay and $9.05 for a total of $12.55 per ride. PSTA meant the contract to say that the total per ride would be $9.05 — the company would keep the co-pay and the PSTA would pay $5.55 per ride. The disputed amount adds up to more than $800,000 a year.
Garling had failed to immediately inform board members of the problem and had paid what Yellow Cab billed PSTA, even though he knew it exceeded the amount the board had authorized.
He apologized to board members Wednesday.
"I take responsibility," Garling said. "I really do believe I've learned a very hard lesson. I will do a better job of communicating in the future."
That was good enough for most board members, who praised Garling's performance. But member Julie Bujalski said she was disappointed in Garling's performance.