Janet Clayburg struggled to make it to the podium on Sept. 16 to speak before the Escambia County Commission. She isn’t a well person. To breathe, Clayburg needs to be attached to an oxygen tank.
The walk to the podium was one that others made in a matter of seconds. For Clayburg, the walk took nearly a full minute. Each step was difficult to watch as she struggled to get air into her lungs. Once at the podium, she took a full minute to compose herself, breathing in the oxygen from her tank.
Clayburg wanted to convince the commissioners not to extend the ADA contract with Pensacola Bay Transportation (PBT), the Mobile, Ala.-based company that has handled since 2001 transportation for those who are elderly, disabled or low-income in the county.
Her voice was a part of litany of complaints against PBT. Clients, their families, drivers and union representatives spoke against the condition of the company’s 28 vehicles, the long delays in picking up clients and the unsafe conditions for the drivers and the passengers. Their goal was to get the county or Escambia County Area Transit (ECAT) to take over the service.
“As a client, I have experienced waiting three or four hours for my ride to come,” said Clayburg. “I have watched dialysis patients wait three or four hours to get their ride home.”
Vicki Snow also complained about the delays. She takes care of her daughter who had an accident several years ago and is wheelchair-bound.
“Half the time she can’t get to her doctors’ appointments because she’s late,” Snow told the commissioners. “Most of the time I have to cancel and reschedule.”
She said that to get her daughter to a 9 a.m. appointment she schedules with Pensacola Bay Transportation to pick her up at 5:30 a.m.
“She may make it, she may not,” said Snow. “If we do get to the appointment on time, we just hope that we’re picked up on time for the ride home. Six hours have gone by, where she’s sitting in a wheelchair waiting for 10:45 pickup [at the doctor’s office] and it’s 4:45 in the afternoon when that ride shows up, if it does.”
Complaints about scheduling aren’t new. Minutes of the Escambia County Transportation Disadvantage Coordinating Board, comprised of state agency and community representatives of the transportation disadvantaged population that meets quarterly to identify local service needs, reflect complaints as early as 2011 and more have stepped forward recently.
At the board’s June meeting, Wendy Perry, who works for Fresenius Medical Care, a dialysis company in the Pensacola area, talked about the impact of the delays on her company and patients, of which approximately 40 percent use Pensacola Bay Area Transportation.
“We have patients that are waiting three to three and one-half hours for a ride home, after enduring four-hour dialysis,” said Perry. “We are talking about people that are in wheelchairs that are amputees. They are stuck in the chair three and one-half hours.”
Perry said there were also problems with patients arriving on time for their appointments.
She said, “We have had trouble lately with them bringing the patients late. Patients due on the machine at 11, they don’t bring them until 2. We have schedules for our nursing personnel, and we are now experiencing a lot of overtime cost to us because of the ineffectiveness of community transportation.”
Up in Flames
On May 16, a Ford E-450 van owned by PBT dropped off its last passenger in the Molino area and headed southbound on Highway 29. The driver noticed a lot of heat coming from under his dashboard. Earlier in the day, another driver, Charles Lyons, had complained of the same thing.
The afternoon driver pulled over and jumped out of the van just minutes before it became completely engulfed in flames.
According to the Escambia County Transportation Disadvantaged Service Plan (TDSP) FY 2013/2014, the van had 288,308 miles on its odometer. Of the remaining 28 vehicles that the transit company operates for the disadvantaged, 10 have more mileage, one, a Ford E-350, has 458,199 miles and 14 are at least 10 years old.
Michelle Sellers, a dialysis patient for 19 years, told the commissioners about the interior conditions of the vans.
“You have to tie yourself into some of the seats,” said Sellers. “Some of the backs are broken, some of them have something sticking in your butt.”
Snow said that the rubber flooring has buckled and split in some of the vans, making it difficult for wheelchairs to roll. The wheelchair lifts have broken down.
Snow told the commissioners that she had trouble finding a seat in a van that had a working seat belt to secure her grandson’s car seat. “It’s not acceptable.”
New General Manager
Janice Grisby, the former human resource manager who was made general manager about 33 days ago, defended her owner, Marge Wilcox and Pensacola Bay Transportation. She told the board that the company had put an action plan in place.
“I believe we have done a lot of improvement in the last 45 days,” said Grisby. “We’re listening to our customers’ complaints, taking action on those complaints. We plan to do that on a long-term basis.”
She said the PBT, which also handles the disadvantaged transportation for Santa Rosa County, was installing auto-scheduling software to reduce delays. Grisby said the owner had bought six used vans and the company was getting more new ones through grants.
Betty Henderson, a wheelchair-bound client of the service since 2007, was not convinced that her transportation would get any better if it remains under PBT.
She told the IN, “Last week, I was supposed to be picked up at my doctor’s office at 3:30. I didn’t get picked up until 7 p.m. I had another appointment that they didn’t have me in the computer for and they never picked me up.”
Henderson said that she has complained to owner Marge Wilcox. “I have her direct line. She says, ‘I’m so sorry, so sorry. Thank you for calling us. We wouldn’t learn these things if you didn’t call us.’ But nothing changes.”
She was also not impressed with used vans purchased by Wilcox. She provided the newspaper with photos she said were of rusty chair tie-downs and seats.
Henderson said, “They look like they were from New Jersey and went through Hurricane Sandy.”
Time to Move Service
The county commissioners were clearly upset by the complaints.
“Anyone running this should not have let this fall into such disarray, where it took so many citizens to have to come here,” said Chairman Gene Valentino. “I’m very disappointed in the program. I can’t tell the commissioners how anxious I would like to see this wrapped into First Transit [the management company for ECAT].”
However, the county doesn’t have the 30 vehicles to run the service and there are aspects that fall under state contracts that don’t expire until June 2014.
The commission voted to extend the ADA contract an additional 90 days to give Assistant County Administrator Larry Newsom time to get with the state and First Transit and develop a plan for taking over the services.
“Our ultimate goal is to solve the problem,” Newsom told the IN. “The county is working with Pensacola Bay Transportation on a day-to-day basis, looking at the fleet and tracking complaints and the follow-up.”
For Betty Henderson and the other clients that were at the commission meeting, the changeover cannot happen fast enough.
“I don’t understand what’s wrong,” she said. “We depend on this service. These are our lives they are messing with.”