FARMINGTON — Every day around 4 p.m., Chris Sheffler gets out of work at the Homestead Bakery and gets on the bus to go home from his job as a dishwasher.

For just $1.50 each way, the bus provided by Western Maine Transportation Services takes Sheffler about 8 miles from work to his home in Wilton. It’s a service he uses every day, twice per day.

“Well, thank goodness this bus is around,” Sheffler said during his ride home on a recent afternoon. “Because the options would be I would have to get a ride with my wife, who drives, or it’d be a taxi. A taxi costs 15 bucks from my place to here, one way.”

Sheffler, who doesn’t drive and said he doesn’t have the time or money to learn, would struggle without the bus service, which is among a handful of nonprofit groups that have been receiving less and less funding in recent years from Franklin County.

Several county commissioners and members of the Franklin County Budget Committee have argued that taxpayer money shouldn’t be going to nonprofit groups that provide transportation and social services and are used by a few. They also recently took issue with Western Maine Transportation Services refusing to disclose the salaries of its top employees.

As a result, county officials largely don’t want to fund the agency at all in the 2019-2020 budget, meaning the group could suffer a significant cut to the money it uses to run Franklin County services.

Chris Sheffler rides the Western Maine Transportation Services bus to his home in Wilton after a shift at The Homestead Kitchen, Bar and Bakery in downtown Farmington. Sheffler, who doesn’t have a driver’s license, relies on the bus to get to work five days a week. Morning Sentinel photo by Meg Robbins

The group and other nonprofits whose funds have been trimmed over the years have argued their services are important, and while the amount of funding from the county may seem small overall, it goes a long way in helping them leverage funds from state and national groups.

Since 2014, funding for nonprofits in Franklin County has dropped 75%. The number of agencies that receive funding, which was at 11 in 2014, has dropped to just five.

Meanwhile, neighboring Androscoggin and Somerset counties, both of which have overall budgets that are about double Franklin County’s budget, recently have increased spending on social services but fund an even smaller number of groups.

“Obviously, if there is a need and desire for the services that are given, funding must be provided,” Larry Post, the county administrator for Androscoggin County, said in an email.

Franklin County officials have defended their cuts, which are expected to increase even further in the budget proposals the county is looking at.

A public hearing on the proposals from commissioners and the Budget Committee is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Franklin County Superior Court.

“A couple of us decided those programs shouldn’t be funded by the county,” said Terry Brann, chairman of the Franklin County commissioners, who said he envisions completely eliminating spending on nonprofits in the coming years. “We shouldn’t be forcing people who can’t afford it to increase their taxes. If they want to fund those programs, they can do that individually.”

Those who work at the nonprofits see it differently.

WHAT IS THE EFFECT?

“For me, this is giving people the opportunity to go to work, go to school, get their groceries and fulfill life-sustaining things that keep them in their homes,” said Sandy Buchanan, general manager and director of operations for Western Maine Transportation.

The Auburn-based agency provided 4,595 trips to 191 riders in Franklin County in fiscal year 2018 and has an annual budget for Franklin County of $120,782.

Although the agency also provides services in Oxford and Androscoggin counties and elsewhere, all the money raised in Franklin County is spent there, Buchanan said.

That means the $10,000 the group is asking for from the county accounts for about one-eighth of their budget there — or more, since the money also can be used to apply for state and federal grants that require a local match.

Walt Webber drives the Western Maine Transportation Services bus Thursday afternoon from Wilton to Farmington. Webber said about 30 people use the low-fare Franklin County bus service each week. Morning Sentinel photo by Meg Robbins

The same is true for Western Maine Community Action, a nonprofit that focuses on providing services to low- and moderate-income families, especially with housing, workforce development and utilities.

Bill Crandall, a program manager at WMCA, said money from the county can help the agency bring in additional state and federal funds.

“Some of these nonprofits are bringing in money and helping people be able to afford their taxes,” he said. “If we help people by providing $600 in fuel assistance, that’s money they can use to help pay their taxes.”

If the county doesn’t fund Western Maine Transportation, as both the budget committee and commissioners are proposing this year, Buchanan said, she is uncertain what that would mean for services, but it could mean a change from the current on-demand service to a fixed route or other more cost-effective model.

“We will still work to come up with some sort of local funding, but if we aren’t able to it could severely impact the level of service we’re able to provide in that area,” she said.

“How many people use it?” Brann, the county commissioner, asked. “I think it’s a bad deal for the taxpayers personally. Only a few people are using it, and I bet they could find friends or family members to take them where they need to go. They don’t need that system.”

Sheffler and other riders, though, said the effect would be devastating to them.

Eighty-six-year-old Aaron Neil, of Farmington, is one of those riders. Neil, who has a disability and can’t drive, said he usually rides the bus at least once per week to run errands and get his groceries.

“I can’t depend on family to do all of my errands,” he said. “I try to do most of it using Western Maine Transportation and relieve them of the burden.”

Without the service, Neil said, he would be lost.

“A $10,000 expense for what it accomplishes and what it’s meant to accomplish would get my vote in a second,” he said. “Even if I were not handicapped, that’s my view.”

DEBATE OVER SALARIES

In addition to questions about the need for services, county officials also have asked whether the money they’re giving to nonprofits is going to salaries or directly to helping residents.

At a May 20 budget meeting, several Budget Committee members questioned Craig Zurhorst, community relations director for WMTS, on the salaries for their top employees, which he would not disclose.

“I think what some of the committee members are struggling with is the fact you won’t provide the full financial statement,” said Josh Bell, committee chairman. “Are you not a public entity?”

Bell did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Asked about the salaries, officials from WMTS agreed to provide salary information and said they also plan to give those numbers to commissioners and the Budget Committee.

Currently, the highest-paid employee is the maintenance and transportation supervisor, who earns an hourly wage of $32 per hour but in the last fiscal year earned over $100,000 total because of more than 1,000 hours in overtime, Buchanan said.

She said a shortage of bus drivers and maintenance technicians has contributed to the supervisor having to pick up a lot of the work himself, and that if the agency is able to find and retain more employees, his wages would be less.

Buchanan also said she is the next-highest-paid employee and earns less than $85,000. Of the agency’s total $4.7 million budget, administrative wages are only about 4.5% of it and total salaries and wages are about 9% of the budget.

Meanwhile, at Western Maine Community Action, the most recent 990 tax form on file with Internal Revenue Services, from 2016, shows a salary of $84,692 for former Executive Director Steve Johndro and a salary of $90,101 for Director of Finance and Administration Judith Gerry.

“Judy has been here for eons and she’s dealing with $8 million budgets,” Crandall said. “I don’t know if it’s a fair wage or not, but I think if (you compared it to) a private business, the county commissioners would be very appreciative of what we do.”

The three highest salaries in county government are for Sheriff Scott Nichols, who is budgeted to earn $70,887 next year; Chief Deputy Steve Lowell, who is budgeted for $65,791; and Lt. David St. Laurent, who is budgeted for $58,199.

Crandall said in looking at the county budget, there are other places officials could cut costs, such as the IT department, where he said services could be outsourced.

For the coming fiscal year, officials are considering raising around $5.64 million from taxes, with less than 1 %of that going to nonprofits. The current budget is $6.56 million, including money raised by taxation as well as other revenue.

“Every nickel counts to me,” Brann said. “I think it’s a matter of principle, too, in a couple of the cases. Yes, I do think it’s worth it (to debate the funding).”

OTHER COUNTIES’ SPENDING

Overall, Franklin County commissioners have proposed a $44,700 budget for nonprofits this year, including $20,000 for Western Maine Community Action, $21,000 for the Franklin County Soil & Water Conservation District and $3,700 for the Franklin County Fireman’s Association.

The Budget Committee is proposing $43,700, with $20,000 for the conservation district, as opposed to $21,000.

Both groups decided against funding Western Maine Transportation and Seniors Plus, which offers caregiver services and assistance to the elderly and asked for $5,000 from the county this year.

In addition, the county also has proposed spending $53,012 on the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Androscoggin County is spending $49,557 on the extension service and $66,500 on two other nonprofits: $14,000 for the Androscoggin Valley Soil and Water Conservation District and $42,500 for Western Maine Transportation.

The county also has a budget that’s more than twice the size of Franklin County’s, at $14.3 million.

In his email, Post, the county administrator, said this is the first year the county has agreed to fund WMTS and there was one “no” vote each on the county commission and the Budget Committee.

However, he said, “if there is a need and desire for services that are given, funding must be provided.”

“Usually this funding comes from several sources, and a reduction of local funds may mean a reduction of other grant funds requiring a match,” Post wrote.

Somerset County’s proposed 2019-2020 budget includes $57,647 for extension services and an additional $94,500 for other nonprofits, including the Somerset County Tourism Council, Somerset Economic Development Corporation and the Somerset County Soil & Water Conservation District.

The county’s overall proposed budget is $12.6 million.

Back on the bus from Farmington to Wilton, Chris Sheffler said he understands both sides of the debate but thinks it would be a disservice to the people of Franklin County, especially those with disabilities, to cut funding for Western Maine Transportation Services.

“It needs to be here not only for the people who don’t drive or just really need to get around, but especially for the handicapped,” he said, adding that the service is also used by the elderly and people who need to get to their jobs.

“If it weren’t for this bus, too, the workforce would be more limited,” Sheffler said. “This bus takes the burden off.”

Morning Sentinel reporter Meg Robbins contributed to this report. 

 


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