Freedom Express discussion set for 2022 budget

·3 min read

Accessible Transportation Services will be reinstated as a permanent Town-delivered service using the current limited service levels for the remainder of 2021.

Increased service levels will be determined through the 2022-2024 operational budget process.

“Without a budget amendment there isn’t any way to move that service level higher,” said CAO Emily Olsen during the standing committee meeting on July 15.

She noted that the Freedom Express has been operating with a reduced budget since November 2020 and has been meeting the needs of the clients. Since the fall, Freedom Express services have operated at reduced hours and on limited days throughout the week.

Coun. Trevor Haas pointed out that as programs, businesses, and services open up with COVID-19 restrictions being lifted, demand for the Freedom Express may increase.

“Running it now that things have opened up, there hasn’t been a huge increase in ridership and our survey numbers speak to that,” said Caryn Bouchard, family and community support services (FCSS) manager.

A survey was issued in May 2021 to current Freedom Express users. Data from the survey showed that there was a significant decrease in ridership in the past year compared to the previous year. This decrease is a result of the reduced operating budget, reduced hours and availability, increased usage of alternative modes of transportation, continued COVID-19 impacts, inactive programs, and increased efficiency in scheduling, stated administration.

Over the past several months, Administration searched for an external party that would agree to take on the delivery of accessible transportation services in Hinton.

The Evergreens Foundation (EGF) was previously identified as an ideal partner for this service transfer because they are equipped with an accessible transportation bus, have licensed transportation drivers, share clientele, could offer a similar service delivery model, and is an established community agency.

The Town of Hinton entered into an agreement with EGF last August to provide an annual financial contribution for an Accessible Transportation Service for residents with mobility limitations and eliminate The Town-provided service. Due to an unanticipated application to the Alberta Labour Relations Board, this agreement was terminated in September 2020, stated administration.

Temporary limited accessible transportation services were made available while the Town searched for another potential partner.

Bouchard clarified that they were unable to identify any other agencies in the community that would similarly meet the needs of the Town as EGF would. NeighbourLink was contacted about this service, but their board was not interested in considering a partnership, partly due to the recent grant they received to offer Medically At-Risk Driver (MARD) services, which will make their bus unavailable.

The non-profit model of the Freedom Express is also not a good fit for private companies and taxi services, as it would not be financially viable for for-profit businesses. Bouchard said the Town is capable of operating the services successfully right now with its current budget.

“I don’t see a lot of private businesses touching this, because you’re paying more in insurance costs, to insure a vehicle that equals just about $25,000 a year,” she said.

The Town sent a formal letter to the EGF board in March to request reconsideration of the agreement. Administration also made requests to present on accessible transportation services at the Foundation’s May and June Board meetings.

The Evergreens Foundation Board declined the request due to lack of capacity.

Bouchard explained that the Town could still consider partnering with an outside agency to provide the services if an external agency approached the Town or if there was a need.

The Freedom Express used to operate six days a week with an annual budget of $105,208. Under the revised reduced scope model, the service operates with an annual budget of $25,000 and provides service for three partial days each week.

Registered eligible clients can call the Freedom Express phone line any time to book their appointments on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 9 am to 2 pm. Clients are requested to provide 24 hours notice for booking.

Masha Scheele, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hinton Voice

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