| Mar 29, 2007


Feature Article - March 29, 2007

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Feature Article - March 29, 2007

Rural Routes receives county funding, but future is still uncertainby Jeff Green

Frontenac County council spent more time discussing a $46,500 expenditure directed towards the Rural Routes transportation program – an expenditure that represents fractions of a percentage point of the more than $14 million county budget - than they did on any other item during this year’s budget process.

The issue was so divisive, with councillors split evenly on north-south lines, that the issue was put aside until the meeting following the passage of the budget itself.

The issue seemed simple enough at the start.

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Rural Routes is a transportation program that was set up over the past couple of years to consolidate transportation services offered by various agencies serving North and Central Frontenac and parts of South Frontenac. It was a response to a needs study that was initiated by Northern Frontenac Community Services, which serves that particular region. Rural Routes’ main objective is to provide rides to medical and social services. The rides are funded by the social agencies, or by the riders themselves.

It received a series of start up grants from the Trillium Foundation, the Ontario Ministry of Health, and the Frontenac Community Futures Development Corporation, but as those grants ran out, Rural Routes followed the lead of other similar programs in rural Eastern Ontario by seeking funding at the municipal level. The County of Lanark and the County of Hastings both fund rural transportation services that operate on a similar model, so Rural Routes approached Frontenac County, seeking $46,500 in 2007, and as well hopefully making themselves eligible for provincial gas tax funding totalling up to $35,000, which requires that they be considered a municipal service.

The complication for Frontenac County councillors lies in the fact that Rural Routes does not serve most of South Frontenac Township and is unheard of in the Frontenac Islands.

When the budget was being discussed, Mayor Gary Davison of South Frontenac and Mayor Jim Vanden-Hoek of the Frontenac Islands made it clear they would only consider approving the $46,500 allocation if it were explicitly called a one-time grant to help the project get off the ground. They wanted to close the door on any possibility that Rural Routes would be back knocking at the county’s door in 2008.

Mayors Janet Gutowski from Central Frontenac and Ron Maguire from North Frontenac both resisted this pressure from their counterparts from the south, saying that the money should be given on a pilot basis, with the possibility of future funding as the program perhaps expands to include more of South Frontenac.

To bridge this impasse, the matter was deferred. County staff prepared a report, which was presented to County Council last week, on March 21st.

The report, prepared by Deputy County Clerk Susan Beckel, outlined three options. The first would see the county take Rural Routes on as a county program, and allocate the $46,500. This option was never even discussed at last week’s council meeting.

The second option, which was initially favoured by Mayor’s Davison and Vanden-Hoek, would see a “one-time grant of $46,500 with no further county involvement.”

The third option, which was recommended by staff and was well received by the northern mayors, would see an allocation of $36,500, “reserving $10,000 for the county to undertake the development of a business plan” for the service.

This plan, County CAO explained, would look at the viability of the service, taking the transportation needs of the county as a whole into account.

Although the staff recommendation included the statement that this funding would carry no commitment on county’s part beyond 2007 unless council makes that decision, Mayor Vanden-Hoek sought further assurances.

First, he said that if indeed transportation was the number one issue for North and Central Frontenac they should consider looking into their own budgets in the future. He then added a proviso that county staff be given the task of seeking outside funding for the service, and he insisted on an amendment, which stated that any future county funding for Rural Routes be raised only from those regions that make use of the service.

At this point, everyone was happy. Rural Routes receives $36,500, subject to certain conditions, the northern mayors don’t have to worry about it when they work on their own 2007 budgets, county staff have a business plan to prepare, and the southern mayors have the assurance that their own taxpayers will not be on the hook for the service in future years.

As to what will happen to Rural Routes in 2008, the phrase “yet to be determined” springs to mind.

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