Carroll commissioners propose boosting veterans shuttle funding, maintaining home pickups
By Sarah Meehan
Carroll County Times|
Apr 29, 2019 | 5:00 AM
The Carroll County commissioners have proposed increasing the budget for a free veterans’ shuttle service to support the program’s growth as more veterans use it to get to and from medical appointments.
The proposal came weeks after the county decided to maintain the way the Mike "Mad Dog" Sater Veterans Shuttle program transports veterans from their homes to Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, despite rising costs associated with its increased use. County leaders hope the program serves as a model for other jurisdictions in Maryland.
The Board of Commissioners suggested adding $25,000 to the county budget to fund the shuttle service next year. The program was already slated to receive $142,000 for fiscal year 2020 — an amount on par with its allocation for the current fiscal year.
Veterans’ use of the service has grown exponentially since its inception in 2012, and county commissioners say the program could set a standard for other counties in Maryland to follow. Carroll County is considering partnering with other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore and Howard counties, as the program grows, with the hope of establishing a regional shuttle service that could reach more veterans and open the doors to additional funding.
“It has become a kind of a hallmark of this county,” Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, said during Tuesday’s commissioners meeting. “This veterans program that we’ve built really is a model for the state and it becomes a signature project for this county, and we’re recognized that way.”
Other projects that would support Carroll veterans are also in the works. The Carroll County Veterans Independence Project is currently seeking space for a homeless shelter and services center for veterans. Ed Cramer, vice president of the Carroll County Veterans Independence Project, said the group is working with the county’s economic development department to find a building after plans to move into a vacant U.S. Army Reserve building were scrapped.
“We’ve been told by the staff at the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs that we do more for veterans here in Carroll County than any other county in the state,” Cramer said.
Carroll County’s shuttle isn’t the only free transportation option for veterans looking for easier access to health care — the VA offers free shuttles for veterans in Maryland as well. But the county is among the only local jurisdictions that provide such a service.
“We’re trying to as a county step in a little, help ’em get to those services they have earned,” Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said at an April 4 meeting between commissioners and officials from the county’s public works and citizen services departments. “This is not a giveaway or anything, this is part of their contract with the government.”
County officials have looked out of state for similar veterans shuttle programs, including Lake County, Ohio, to determine what has worked for them and to better understand how the “Mad Dog” service could improve.
The shuttle launched in November 2012 with a $25,000 budget. At that time, shuttles operated three days a week, offering trips to VA facilities in Baltimore and Fort Detrick in Frederick. Carroll Transit System took over the shuttle’s operation in 2016, when routes to Martinsburg, West Virginia, were added and the shuttles began running five days a week.
On Tuesday, county commissioners voted to add $25,000 to the $142,000 originally proposed for the shuttle service in FY20 to account for the shuttle’s growing use.
To date, the shuttle’s budget has been based on its ridership. The county has done some advertising to let veterans know about the option, but it’s not clear how much more ridership could grow, according to Stacey Nash, the county’s transportation grants coordinator.
“The more people that know, the more veterans we can help, which is great,” Nash said. “But it’ll also increase ridership, which increases cost.”
Any veteran who is preapproved by the county can use the shuttle for rides to medical appointments. Celene Steckel, chief of the Carroll County Bureau of Aging and Disabilities, said it complements other services the county offers its veterans, who at last count in the 2010 Census numbered more than 14,000.
“It‘s a great addition to our veterans services program because sometimes their appointments are required in order for them to qualify for the benefits that they’re receiving,” Steckel said.
That change didn’t go over well with veterans who had been picked up at home and driven directly to VA hospitals, Nash said at an April 4 meeting between the county commissioners, public works and citizen services departments. During that meeting, county officials discussed ways to curb rising costs considered doing away with home pickups, as well as charging a fee for certain pickup points, round-trips and no-shows. They ultimately decided to keep the shuttle service as is.
Now county officials are exploring options to partner with surrounding jurisdictions, such as Howard and Baltimore counties, as well as opportunities for grant funding to support the growing program. Steckel said the county is working to arrange meetings with other counties to discuss partnering with them on the initiative.
“The key about this project is it really lays out that we are doing a service for our veterans, and not a flagpole or a monument like a lot of other jurisdictions are doing,” Rothstein said at a Tuesday meeting of the Board of Commissioners. “We’re actually providing a service to our veterans when they need it.”