A program that provides transportation for elderly and disabled people in Milton has repeatedly gone over budget due to an increase in demand. Now, the local nonprofit that oversees the program is looking for ways to keep it afloat.
The Milton Family Community Center has overseen the Elderly and Disabled Program as long as executive director Vikki Patterson, who joined the center in 2002, can recall.
Green Mountain Transit contracts with the Special Services Transportation Agency to provide the service in Chittenden County. The Vt. Agency of Transportation helps pay for the service by allocating federal funds to cover 80 percent of the costs, and local partners make up the rest. In Milton, MFCC acts as a pass through, administering the grant and overseeing the program; the selectboard reimburses the costs, and the center receives no profit.
“The time that I put into it, and my organization and the administration, we don’t ask for anything, we don’t receive anything. It’s our contribution to the overall good of the community,” Patterson said.
MFCC offers the service three days a week. Eligible riders – age 60 or above or disabled – can take up to two rides weekly to attend medical appointments, meal sites, senior centers, shopping and trips and general daily needs. Critical care trips made up about 25 percent of MFCC’s 1,800 trips last year while non-critical care comprised of about 45 percent.
MFCC’s trip parameters are more restrictive than other towns, and GMT officials say that shows Milton is being responsible with its federal funding. But the restrictions put Patterson in the unenviable position of fielding calls from residents desperate for an extra ride, like patients on dialysis who need to attend an every-other-day treatment.
Those exceptions, plus growing ridership and a 15 percent rate hike last year from SSTA, has pushed Milton’s program costs beyond the total allocated from GMT and forced the family center to make up the difference. Last year, that total was $18,000, though underspending in several other counties allowed GMT to make up most of the deficit.
MFCC needed to use $2,000 of its own funds to cover the difference, money Patterson said would otherwise have gone to its other programs – ones more aligned with the center’s mission. “And the costs are not looking to go down anytime soon,” Patterson said.
The Milton Selectboard approved allocating $5,670 to MFCC in the current fiscal year, though Patterson expects that will again fall short of the 20 percent local match, which she estimates will be around $8,000 if usage remains steady. She came before the selectboard last month seeking assurances the town will cover any overages.
The board didn’t act, but town manager Don Turner said he increased the amount appropriated to MFCC in his upcoming budget proposal. He planned to ask the board to make a motion to monitor the program more regularly so if it appears MFCC’s costs will go over budget, the town can make more money available.
“These are essential services that our residents need and have come to expect,” Turner said. “We have to do a good job of making sure we can provide them in the future.”
There are a few ways MFCC can cut costs. A healthy fleet of volunteer drivers, who use their own cars to transport riders, allows MFCC to provide service at a much cheaper rate; drivers receive mileage reimbursements, but they’re significantly less than what SSTA charges, Patterson said.
And a new GMT rate system, in which costs are calculated based on a per-trip ratio instead of charging per individual ride, could heed savings for towns like Milton, where most SSTA trips include multiple riders.
Patterson said she may also look to other models around the county, like Essex, which leases buses and pays part-time drivers for a five-day-a-week bus service, although that town is undergoing its own re-examination of its busing program over concerns with the model’s liability and staffing issues.
In Patterson’s perfect world, the town would have the staffing and capacity to administer the program itself, but she noted “realistically, that’s asking a lot, and I’m not sure that’s possible.”
Turner agreed. He said the town doesn’t have the resources within its current structure. Assuming the responsibility would force him to hire additional staff, he said, costing the town well beyond the 20 percent match it now pays.
Instead, both Patterson and Turner believe the best option for now is to stay the course. Patterson hopes GMTs new rate schedule will save some money and said she’s going to push for more volunteers. She also plans to make no more exceptions. But she said there might come a day where she must weigh the program against the center’s core mission.
“It’s very hard, especially when I get those personal phone calls,” she said. “It pulls at my heart strings. I personally want to get in my car and drive them, but I can’t. It does hit me on a personal level. I’m a Milton resident, too. I care about everyone in this community.
“We can’t do it at a cost that’s going to hurt the overall organization, and that’s what I’m trying to avoid,” she continued. “I don’t want to see this program go away for this town.”