Editorial: As long as veterans need shuttle program, keep increasing the funding

In a particularly tight budget year, in which increasing funding to pretty much anything was a dicey proposition, one program got an increase of nearly 18 percent from the county commissioners in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 released to the public on Tuesday. In fact, this particular program is now at about six times the funding level as when it launched in November 2012.

Not that anyone is complaining that funding is going up for the shuttle program that gets veterans to their medical appointments. More and more money is needed each year for a simple reason: More and more veterans are using it.


“It has become a kind of a hallmark of this county,” Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, said last week. “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.”

The Mike “Mad Dog” Sater Veterans Shuttle program transports veterans from their homes to Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals. The program had been slated to receive $142,000 for FY20, but the commissioners opted to bump up that number by $25,000 because of how much the program is growing. The VA offers free shuttles for veterans in Maryland as well, but Carroll 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 April 4. “This is not a giveaway or anything, this is part of their contract with the government.”

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 Frederick. Carroll Transit System took over the shuttle’s operation in 2016, when routes were added and the shuttles began running five days a week. In FY17, the budget increased to $75,000, with an additional $31,000 for new vans. For FY18, $105,000 was budgeted for the program, followed by a budget of $102,000 for FY19. In January, the Department of Public Works requested an additional $40,000 to keep the shuttle running through June.

It’s not clear how much more ridership could grow, Stacey Nash, the county’s transportation grants coordinator, told us. In FY17, the shuttle made 271 home pickups. That number increased to 526 from Oct. 1 through February.

“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.”

The extra funding will help the program keep up with those costs, but more funding is likely to be needed as veterans continue to learn about and take advantage of it. Any veteran is eligible after being approved by the county. Celene Steckel, chief of the Carroll County Bureau of Aging and Disabilities, said veterans numbered more than 14,000 in Carroll based on the 2010 Census.

County officials discussed ways to curb rising costs April 4 and considered doing away with home pickups, as well as charging a fee for certain pickup points, round-trips and no-shows. They 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.

We’ve always been in favor of the veterans shuttle program and hope partnerships can be explored to keep prices down without limiting something veterans have found to be tangibly helpful, as Rothstein noted last week.

“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. “We’re actually providing a service to our veterans when they need it.”