MITCHELL — For the past several years, the city of Mitchell has struggled to retain bus drivers for its transit service, and more recently, it has led to a suspension of the service.
“It has always been a bit of a struggle for us,” said Mitchell Mayor JD England. “We inherited some issues, and it took time to alleviate those. ... Once we were ready to go again, we came upon the issue of hiring and retaining drivers.”
That’s because, England said, the position was taken from full-time to part-time a number of years ago, and with today’s low unemployment, few people want to drive a city bus for $10 an hour, four hours a day.
“It would be easier for us if we could hire a full-time driver,” England said. “We’ve interviewed a number of highly qualified drivers who simply won’t work for $10 an hour.
“We’ve never wanted to lose the bus service.”
The issue, England said, can be resolved in two ways: He can ask the city council to amend the salary ordinance and find money in the city’s tight budget to fund a full-time driver, or the city can enter into a lease agreement with Rural Transit that would allow the service to use the city bus and serve those who live within the city limits.
“I have a lease proposal on my desk, but I have several questions I need to ask before we lease out the service,” England said. “This is all in the preliminary stages of discussions. No decisions have been made. The public notice published in the newspaper was simply a notice letting the people of Mitchell know we were having these discussions.”
The questions that need answers, England said, will include the cost, hours, service availability for Mitchell residents and how citizens will be affected by scheduling changes.
“The goal will be to serve the citizens better and get the bus back on the road,” he said. “If the lease option doesn’t work out, I plan to approach the city council about hiring a full-time driver.”
But England does see some bright spots, if the lease is passed by the Board of Public Works and Safety.
“The perk I see is they’ll be able to go anywhere, not just in the city,” England said. “If you live in Mitchell and need to see your doctor in Bloomington, Rural Transit can get you there. ... I do hope it turns out to be a more positive, reliable mode of transportation. ... No matter what happens, our goal is to get our bus service back up and running. Our residents need to be able to visit friends and family, go shopping and make it to their doctor’s appointments.”
The city was forced to shut down the bus service eight months after England took office in August 2016 after a National Rural Transit Assistance Program employee went undercover to check ridership protocols on one of the city’s buses. The man posed as a handicapped rider.
“As embarrassing as it is for us, he did not get the proper care on the bus,” England said for a previous Times-Mail story. For example, when the rider was loaded, he was told by the driver to “hold on,” rather than be strapped in as safety protocol dictates, the mayor said.
After the incident, the employee was dismissed. But the inspection also led to a series of chain reactions that forced the city to sideline its bus service.
“They inspected the buses and found multiple safety issues,” England said.
The drivers, for one, were not all up to date on required training.
“Coming in on our first year in office, we simply had no idea what went into our transit system,” England said in that previous story. “It was a learning curve for myself and Jen (McNeely, transportation director) as we were both only eight months into our jobs. ... But this has given us both the time and the opportunity to make sure all requirements, including paperwork and safety, are complete.”
All of the problems were remedied, and the buses were put back into service at the end of January 2017. The service continued on a part-time basis until the lack of drivers forced the city to once again sideline its service.
The bus service is supported by federal funding, which accounts for approximately $50,000 a year, and with state money, which adds about another $18,000. The service has already been funded for 2019, but the city will have to re-apply this summer, and England says what happens to the transit system depends solely on whether or not the city receives the grant funding again.