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Sunday, July 19, 2009 | Her muscles are atrophied but her brain is fine, so 35-year-old LaTasha Jackson has no problem enjoying a Padres game or a dinner event in San Diego with her friends who also have cerebral palsy.

It’s getting there that’s the challenge.

Jackson, who uses a wheelchair, has to ride three separate special equipped vans to reach San Diego from her apartment in Escondido. The trip back requires another series of transfers, and each one requires her to wait for a new van to pick her up.

All together, a round trip that might take about an hour for anyone in a private car could take her six hours in an endless round of getting into a van, traveling for a few miles, getting out of the van, waiting for another van to come pick her up and then starting the cycle again.

It’s impossible to attend a night baseball game at Petco Park, and even day games are a nightmare of logistics.

Jackson seems to find joy in the mere act of living, and she smiles when asked about the hassles she endures to be able to travel. But it’s clear she doesn’t appreciate the delays.

“I don’t like to wait a long time,” she said after taking two vans to make it to a medical appointment in Poway.

In 2005, a group of local activists set up a government agency to make things easier for disabled people like Jackson to get around. They hoped to unite social service organizations and transportation agencies under one umbrella that would give people a single number to call and get a ride.

In simple terms, the vision was this: No fuss, no hassle, no duplication of services, no nightmare van-to-van-to-van trips.

Four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the little-known Full Access & Coordinated Transportation has only provided direct transportation assistance to a handful of people.

Hobbled by management problems, this blend of government agency and non-profit lacked a business plan and focused on raising money and spending it on management employees instead of helping people get around.

For example, the agency fired its first executive director and hired an interim leader — who was also a board member — at an annualized salary of $175,000, much higher than the position’s normal pay.

“They didn’t serve the public,” said Penny Goforth, a La Mesa grant writer who helped the agency raise money until she became disillusioned by its management. “How many people didn’t get to doctor’s appointments or stores because they were still planning on getting them transportation?”

Former Coronado City Councilman Phil Monroe, chairman of the agency’s board, acknowledged a rocky few years. “We didn’t get off to a really good start. There’s no question about that.”

But he said the agency is moving ahead under a new executive director who hopes to begin helping disabled county residents get rides by the end of the year.

Others who advocate for transportation in the county are hopeful too. As they wait, though, more money is still being spent, provided courtesy of taxpayers — both federal and local — and philanthropists.

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Every day, dozens of vans head out to pick up disabled people across the county. Some charge a fee, while others are free. They pick up those in wheelchairs, the infirm elderly, and the developmentally disabled.

Social services agencies and churches run some of the vans, but most are provided by public transit agencies.

The problem: There’s no cross-talk between the various transportation providers.

In Oceanside, for example, the city might send vehicles to pick up seniors so they can go to a senior lunch program, said Alane Haynes, accessible services administrator with the North County Transit District. At the same time, the San Diego Center for the Blind may be picking up someone in the same area, as might the transit district’s “paratransit” program, which makes about 300 trips a day to help the disabled.

“You have got three different vehicles going to the same vicinity,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be smarter to have one vehicle so that the two other vehicles can pick up people who don’t have transportation (elsewhere)? That’s the general idea behind coordination.”

A network could also help people like Jackson take a single van to travel across the county; various jurisdictions could work together and figure out a way for her to avoid multiple transfers and simply rely on one provider. And it could bring services to areas that have limited or non-existent bus routes, like rural areas and wealthy suburbs.

If there’s no bus route running through a neighborhood, vans operated by transit agencies won’t go serve it. Private transportation for the disabled is an option, but an expensive one at $100 a ride, compared to $4 or $4.50 for a transit van.

Enter FACT, created by Haynes and other transportation advocates. In 2006, it began setting up its operations. Led by an appointed board that included local elected officials, including Escondido Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler, it hired an executive director and began applying for grant money.

Over the last three years, the agency has spent more than $500,000, much of it from federal and local grants — including $105,017 over the past year from the San Diego Association of Governments.

The agency has created an online database, held numerous meetings with local officials and spent money to raise money by hiring grant writers.

But the agency has failed to meet its goals.

It has not created a transportation network in North County, where it was to launch a pilot project. It has not designed a software system to allow disabled people to easily call a central number and get assistance in finding a ride.

The number of people directly helped by FACT remains in the double digits, acknowledges its executive director, Max Calder.

The agency helped 34 developmentally disabled people find rides in late 2008 and early 2009. But the program was cancelled in February when the state reneged on a grant due to lack of funds.

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While it virtually provided no services, FACT kept executive directors on the payroll — three of them so far, a high rate of turnover for such a young organization.

The first one was fired last year because he “didn’t have the skill set to take FACT where it needed to go,” Monroe said.

The board had to specifically exonerate the next one, Duke Bushong, who felt he’d been accused of wrongdoing.

FACT board hired Bushong, a member of the board, to run the agency on a temporary basis last summer after the previous executive director was fired.

But Bushong, former CEO of a water vending machine company called Glacier Water Service, wanted a higher than normal salary for his position. He agreed to an annualized salary of $175,000.

By contrast, his successor, now the permanent executive director, makes $70,000 a year.

“Duke seemed brilliant with his ideas, and his resume is very distinguished,” said Monroe, the FACT board member. “He’s rescued a couple of companies in the past, and there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t be able to do the same for FACT in the interim.”

As for the salary, Monroe said, “his asking price was pretty high.” But the board decided to use funds it would otherwise use for more hiring. “At the time, we didn’t need the additional people,” Monroe said.

Haynes, the North County Transit District administrator and a then-member of the FACT board, disagreed with that notion. According to the minutes of the September board meeting, she said it was “inappropriate for a start-up non-profit with no revenue and no employees to pay a salary of that size.”

But then she and the other board members unanimously agreed to hire Bushong at the salary level.

Later, according to the minutes of a FACT board meeting, an administrative assistant thought Bushong was making more money than had been approved by the board.

She complained to the agency’s board members, who discussed Bushong’s pay at a January meeting.

A subcommittee of the board had told Bushong he could receive extra pay of $14,600 to reimburse him for Medicare and Social Security payments. Since Bushong was working as an independent contractor, not an employee, he would otherwise have to pay those costs himself.

But the full board didn’t approve the extra pay and ultimately declined to allow it at the January meeting.

While the full board never approved the pay increase, Bushong denied he did anything wrong by accepting the pay.

The board said e-mails regarding the pay increase “validate Duke’s actions.”

“The board,” the minutes say, “considers this a closed matter.”

Bushong left when the board hired Calder, a veteran of public transportation management, to be executive director.

As for the assistant who raised concerns, FACT fired her. She accepted a $2,824 settlement regarding “lost compensation claims” and agreed to not sue FACT, according to documents.

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Board member Monroe chalks the agency’s problems up to out-of-whack priorities.

“We spent a little bit too much of our energy trying to go after grants,” he said. A lack of a business plan didn’t help either, Monroe acknowledged, by leaving the agency with no benchmarks.

“We really need a timeline: if we don’t do this by this particular time, we can’t deem ourselves a success,” he said.

FACT has succeeded in raising money. Its 2008-2009 fiscal year budget was about $285,000, up from $97,400 and $125,500 in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, respectively.

Calder, the executive director, said about $180,000 of the 2008-2009 budget covered salaries and consulting expenses. Rent, equipment, insurance and other expenses cost accounted for the rest, he said.

Calder estimates next year’s budget will reach $712,000. About 10 percent of that will cover Calder’s salary; $38,000 will pay for a consultant to create a business plan for the agency.

As for services, Calder hopes to help seniors in remote parts of the rural East County community of Ramona gain better access to transportation. That could happen as soon as this summer, he said.

“The idea is that it would be a one-stop shop,” he said, “where you could make a call, schedule a trip and have someone show up and take someone somewhere.”

Calder said the plan is to join several charities in a network that would provide transportation services as a whole.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean they have vehicles or drivers,” he said. “It could be someone who has a well-developed call center. You could save significant money by partnering with someone who’s doing that already.”

It’s not clear at the moment, however, how many groups will take part.

Jackson, the Escondido woman with cerebral palsy, may have to wait much longer for better coordination to lead to less hassle. Her trips to San Diego, Calder said, are complicated because they cross “jurisdictional and transit district lines.”

Allowing people like to her to avoid changing from van to van during single trips would require more money or a much more coordinated system, he said.

“It’s a challenge, yes. But impossible? No,” he said.

Monroe, the board member, is confident that Calder will figure out answers. “We have a newly motivated executive director who knows the business and a board that’s ready to really get behind him and move forward,” he said.

For her part, Haynes, who coordinates disabled transportation in North County, looks forward to no longer hearing from disabled people who can’t leave the house because they can’t find a ride.

“There are people who are isolated in their houses,” Haynes said. “They don’t have family for whatever reason, or their family isn’t able to do it. A lot of the time, people age and they tend to pull back. They don’t want to ask for help, and maybe when they do, the help isn’t there.

“Every time I get one of these phone calls,” she said, “it breaks my heart.”

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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