Craig Zurhorst, community relations director of Western Maine Transportation Services. Donna M. Perry/Sun Journal

FARMINGTON — Western Maine Transportation Services in Auburn announced Tuesday it will eliminate or reduce its demand-response bus services in Farmington, Jay, Rangeley, Wilton and surrounding communities, including Livermore Falls, as of March 31.

Transportation service representatives were taken by surprise in December, six months into Franklin County’s fiscal year, when they learned through media articles that a $10,000 contribution they counted on from Franklin County to get federal funds, wasn’t being released by commissioners, Craig Zurhorst, the agency’s community relations director, said Wednesday.

The money was to be used to get about $13,500 in federal funds.

As a result of the loss, Western Maine Transportation Services “will be eliminating, or significantly reducing most of its services in Franklin County as of March 31,” Sandra Buchanan, general manager, wrote in a release. They are working to find alternative funding to keep existing services operating.

“However I feel it is important to let everyone know with as much warning as possible that this elimination is likely to happen,” according to Buchanan’s release.

An email was sent Monday to Franklin County municipal and county leaders, and legislators alerting them that they might be receiving phone calls or emails in regards to the announcement. The announcement Tuesday given to stakeholders had telephone numbers and email addresses listed for those people.

In jeopardy are the daily public transit services demand-response buses in Farmington, Wilton, Jay, and surrounding communities, and the monthly service between Rangeley and Farmington. It is expected to likely affect over 150 individuals as well as employers, medical practices, organizations and businesses, according to the release.

The county’s Budget Advisory Committee, which has the final say on the budget, voted 5-3 on June 12, 2019, to fund the service after initially voting earlier in the 2019-20 budget process not to support it. The budget panel is made up of selectmen from towns in the county.

The demand-response service requires riders to call the day before to schedule a ride. The cost for up to 25 miles is $5 for each boarding, except for those age 60 and older, or who is disabled or is age 5 to 11. The latter must be accompanied by an adult. The cost for them is $2.50 per boarding, Zurhorst said.

Traditionally, the county’s funding is used to support the demand-response service.

The rides can be to work, education, training, shopping, medical appointments or whatever people need or wherever they want to go, Zurhorst said.

Franklin County Commissioners Terry Brann of Wilton and Charles Webster of Farmington have opposed funding the program grant receivers while Clyde Barker of Strong has been in favor.

It is up to commissioners to determine how the money is spent, Brann said.

“Back when I was on the budget committee six years ago, I told them they needed to find a better way to fund the service,” he said Wednesday. He said he doesn’t think taxpayer dollars is the way to do it.

Three years ago commissioners sent letters to the nonprofits and social service agencies alerting them that the county would phase out funding, he said.

“They have done absolutely nothing” about finding other funding, he said. When he sees the buses, they are not full, he said.

Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Franklin County Firefighters Association were funded this year by commissioners.

Letters were sent in January informing Western Maine Transportation Services, Western Maine Community Action and SeniorsPlus there would be no funding in the 2020-21 county budget.

Commissioners have not released $30,000 for this year and about $18,000 from the 2018-19 budget to Western Maine Community Action, or the $1 place holder in this  year’s budget to SeniorsPlus.

Commissioners cited a number of reasons for not funding the agencies in the past. They included a county unfunded liability, loss of revenue from Jay’s lower valuation, a shortfall in funding for the jail. Another reason was executive directors and some employees were making more than the average county resident. In some cases, executive directors were making more than $100,000, according to commissioners.

Western Maine Transportation Services does not have an executive director or any employees making $100,000 or more a year, according to the agency’s 990 form, which nonprofits have to file every year with the IRS, for 2017 and 2016. It is overseen by a board that gets no compensation.

The amount of federal dollars “can be affected by the mode of service and other factors but $10,000 will bring in federal funds of approximately $13,500,” Buchanan said Wednesday via email.

“The true cost cannot be measured by operational costs alone,” Buchanan wrote. “What are the costs to taxpayers for those that depend on the ride to get to work but no longer can and the potential cost to taxpayers for the person providing the service who may lose their job(s)?”

The GreenLine, a commuter bus, separate from the demand-response bus service, runs four times a day from Farmington to the Lewiston/Auburn area.

The GreenLine “may be affected, but the funds we receive from (the) county commissioners is used to support the daily demand response services,” Buchanan wrote. “WMTS will be working to transition some riders to the GreenLine when appropriate and we will be looking at the GreenLine schedule to see if there are ways to make this service accommodating to individuals that have been using the demand response service.”

There are “106 unique riders” that have used the demand-response service in the first quarter of this fiscal year for a total of 1,996 trips, she said. Many of these trips are for education, training or employment, she said.

A number of factors affect operational cost and those differ between modes of service.  Average cost to operate demand-response services per hour is about $68, Buchanan said.

The affect on riders will include three to five Livermore Falls residents, though the agency is looking at ways to best serve them.

Androscoggin County approved $42,500 for the service this year and Oxford County, $11,500, she said. Buchanan estimated the service has received funding from Franklin County for at least 15 to 20 years.

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