County moves to terminate Good Wheels deal

LaBELLE — Hendry County may end up going into the transportation business itself in 2019, with action taken Tuesday, Dec. 11, to move toward termination of the deal with Good Wheels Inc. that provides for transportation of some disabled and/or disadvantaged county residents.

At least, on paper the contract does. Right now, though, Good Wheels is not providing the normal number of trips since the company has ceased providing public conveyance and is completing only the most necessary medical trips at this time.

The staff report presented by County Administrator Jennifer Davis stated that the firm has requested its 2018-19 grants and aid dollars to be paid, which is $45,000 appropriated from the County Transportation Trust Fund. But Good Wheels also owes the county $42,000 for gas from its pumps through November and asked that amount be deferred until March or April, by which time the deficit will rise. The company says that delays in grant awards being paid has led to financial constraints that forced it to suspend public trips. But if the board allowed Good Wheels to continue operating at its reduced level and defer its fuel bill, it will end up owing almost $100,000 next spring.

Ms. Davis told the board, “I wasn’t comfortable giving them their annual allotment without board approval.” Commissioner Karson Turner snickered and said, “Mr. Chair, I’m dying to have this discussion.” He’s been very vocal in criticizing the company and airing perceptions that it wastes a lot of public money.

When told about the deferred total, Commissioner Darrell Harris said, “I can tell you right now I’m not going with $97,000 for anybody!”

Commissioner Emma Byrd pointed out: “Just for your information, they’re not fully running. They’re only transporting some patients … but they’re not fully running because he (Director Alan Mandel) says the funds are not there. So my question is how are they running a gas bill if they’re not fully running?”

Mr. Turner stated: “Mr. Chair, I think it’s time to pull in the outriggers and start looking at Hendry County getting into the transportation business, and maybe I’ll have a lot of egg on my face or eat very cold crow a year from now. Maybe it’s an impossibility for us, but I want to look at what DeSoto County does.”

Commissioner Harris pointed out that Ms. Davis had told him that county’s program gets fully funded. “They apply for a lot of the same funds that Good Wheels applies to through the FDOT … but between two different grants, they had a bus funded and all their operational costs, charging a dollar or two a trip, and I think it was $12,000, maybe, that came out of their coffers,” she said.

“That’s where we need to be,” responded Commissioner Harris.

“So I would recommend at least initially for us to look into those resources, see what’s available, and then maybe start with the public transportation to begin with,” Ms. Davis answered, noting she’s talked to the Heartland regional transportation body but not DeSoto.

Mr. Turner suggested even consulting with Glades County officials. “Not asking them to put a dollar toward it, but at least have a chat with them about, ‘What is your volume, you think, of utilization,’ and then I guess I feel we need to start looking at this from a Hendry/Glades school board (standpoint) … we need to find a way to skin this cat. We have a corridor going down to iTech, we have a corridor, they tell me — although nobody can give me actual numbers — going to PBSC, and then we have Clewiston to LaBelle for Florida SouthWestern (State College) students.”

He related a tale of talking with Good Wheels officials over a period of time about their services and said their responses to him had gone far beyond “three strikes” against the company, noting repeated instances of apparent wastage of fuel and staff resources that “drive me nuts,” Mr. Turner said.

Commissioner Mike Swindle jumped in to say he was concerned about “how can we look our constituents in the eye and tell them we’re being responsible with their money” if they didn’t clamp down on the financial draw. Mr. Turner complained further about Good Wheels’ “dog and pony show when they come and tell us about additional funding, but it still doesn’t make financial sense.”

He made a motion that the board direct staff to begin the process of terminating the arrangement with Good Wheels, but Commission Chairman Mitchell Wills said Attorney Mark Lapp will need to see first what has to be done legally because there are contractual obligations.

When Administrator Davis said the board has termination rights with 30 days’ notice, Commissioner Harris said, “Draw ’em up.”

Commissioner Turner said to add a directive giving the company 30 days’ notice of termination to his motion.

Mr. Swindle noted that would give the company a little time and a potential hearing at the next county board meeting, on Jan. 8, 2019.

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