NEW HANOVER COUNTY — In a move that clearly caught many off guard, county commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a motion to sever financial ties with the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority (WAVE). The motion, put forward at the end of Monday’s meeting, officially notifies WAVE that the county intends to terminate its contractual dealings and financial support for public transportation — but it leaves a number of unanswered questions.
Monday night, Commissioner Julia Olson-Boseman put forward the motion to terminate all contracts with WAVE transit, ending the interlocal agreement between the county, Wilmington, and WAVE. Commissioner Pat Kusek seconded it and was joined by Commissioner Woody White in the vote. Commissioner Rob Zapple and Chairman Jonathan Barfield voted against it.
The motion doesn’t yet terminate the county’s financial support for WAVE. Due to the complicated nature of the interlocal agreement between New Hanover County, City of Wilmington, and WAVE, the county has to first give a nine-month notice to WAVE. According to County Manager Chris Coudriet, after that notice, the funding withdrawal then takes place the following fiscal year. Based on that timeline, WAVE will lose county funding starting in fiscal year 2022, starting July 1, 2021.
That funding amounts to around $330,000 annually. For comparison, WAVE’s 2020 budget is just shy of $9 million, with almost $1.5 million provided by the City of Wilmington.
Other questions remain, including how the county will handle required services for seniors and the medically infirm, what the legal ramifications are for the county’s relationship to WAVE are, what the ultimate financial impact on WAVE will be — and hows its route both in and outside of the city limits will be affected. And, of course, many have asked: why now?
It’s not a secret that WAVE has been in rough financial waters for several years. County officials recently debated a proposed vehicle registration tax that would have alleviated WAVE’s pending shortfalls. While some, including Zapple, said they would consider a moderate version of the tax, others, including Kusek, were against it. White went further, suggesting the county turn mass transit back over to the city completely.
Although there is some precedent for discussing an end to county funding for WAVE, Olson-Boseman’s motion still appeared to surprise some, including Chairman Barfield. It also quickly gave rise to speculation on social media that the move was in direct response to the City of Wilmington’s resolution last week, asking the county to slow down the exploration of selling New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
Reacting to the city’s resolution, Olson-Boseman told WECT, “The City is welcome to participate in the process going forward along with the remainder of the citizens of New Hanover County. I think the City Council should be focusing on actual issues that [it] can do something about like Wave Transit, since it’s in crisis, instead of passing meaningless resolutions for political gain.”
Asked about these rumors, Olson-Boseman said the move to end county funding for WAVE was not in retaliation for the city’s resolution, but instead a response to WAVE’s ongoing financial crisis.
“What prompted it was WAVE requesting to meet with the Commissioners again because they are broke, again. This is the second time since I’ve been in office that they’ve wanted more money from the County,” Olson-Boseman said.
Olson-Boseman did lay WAVE’s financial issues at the steps of city hall, at least in part.
“[WAVE] is broken and I don’t think we need to keep throwing good money after bad. Public transportation municipal function and the city isn’t doing a very good job,” she said.
Commissioner White also suggested that WAVE needed better leadership and that Wilmington should take over public transportation. He added that he supported public transportation “in densely populated areas where it makes sense. It does not make sense in our outlying areas to fund routes that use large buses that few ride, that clog up the roadways, and that cost so much to purchase and operate.”
Commissioner Zapple said he’s well aware of WAVE’s financial struggles and that he’d be more than happy to discuss the issue. That said, Zapple disagreed with how the issue was brought up.
“I have no problem picking up the WAVE contracts and our relationship and discussing them in an open forum or even in a work session. But the way it was brought forward, with no public notification, without notification for county staff or WAVE administration for them to be there or even defend themselves … and to do it at the end of long meeting, when people thought the county had concluded its business, that’s no way to run a government,” Zapple said.
The item did not, as Zapple noted, appear on the agenda for the Monday meeting. Unlike motions brought forward by staff, motions brought forward Commissioners don’t always have supporting or contextual documents. During the discussion of the meeting, Coudriet was able to answer some questions, but other issues remained unclear prior to the vote.
What will the impact on WAVE be?
The county contributes around $330,000 in direct funding in the FY2020-2021 WAVE budget, designed to cover the cost of Route 207 — which services Cape Fear Community College’s north campus, Wilmington International Airport, the Wilmington VA Clinic, and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office detention center. As Coudriet noted during the meeting (and later confirmed by email), the county could continue to fund that route, even if the overall interlocal agreement was dissolved.
New Hanover County spokesperson Jessica Loeper, the move is “not intended to impact the fixed routes in the city, as those are largely funded through municipal, state, and federal appropriations — not direct county funding.”
According to Zapple, the county also is also a conduit for about $600,000 in “pass-through” spending — state and federal funding that passes through the Department of Social Services (now consolidated into a new Public Health and Social Services department). That includes Medicaid funding for medical trips as well as transportation to the Senior Resource Center; much of these services are provided by vans or other smaller vehicles.
According to WAVE, medical transportation, including dialysis, is contracted by the county for Medicaid clients. These trips are performed by WAVE’s Paratransit Department using 20-foot shuttle vehicles. According to WAVE, just under 39,500 trips were provided under WAVE’s contract in the last fiscal year.
The county confirmed it also paid WAVE close to $60,000 directly for paratransit services.
While the county’s funding is used for services outside Wilmington city limits, Zapple said he was concerned in general about disrupting WAVE’s overall finances.
It remains unclear how much impact the county’s $330,000 will have on WAVE, which has an operating budget of $8,885,711 for the 2020 fiscal year. It’s equally unclear what the legal, structural, and logistical consequences for WAVE will be — or how the authority will respond.
WAVE Executive Director Albert Eby released the following statement Tuesday:
“In response to the decision by the New Hanover County commissioners to withdraw from the agreement creating Wave Transit, the Cape Fear Public Transportation is working to understand the details regarding the decision in an effort to draft a reasoned response. The Authority will consult with our board, our attorney and our main funding partner, the City of Wilmington, as we work to understand the impact the County’s decision will have on the important services provided by Wave Transit. Our goal during these discussions will be focused on continuing to provide the highest level of service to our customers and the community in the most efficient manner possible. As we work through the legal process in response to the decision by New Hanover County we will share our plans moving forward.”
Public input? Next steps?
Monday evening’s motion didn’t technically withdrawal county funding for WAVE, it only gave official notice.
But it does not appear that another vote — or any sort of public hearing — will be necessary to complete the process of cutting county funding.
While cutting the funding will take place in 2021, and it’s possible that — as part of the public hearing process for the FY2021-2022 budget — there will be public discussion and debate about WAVE funding. Based on previous years, that public hearing would likely be in June of 2021.
In the meantime, the county says it will “work on plans to ensure paratransit and human services transportation continues throughout the county.” Options include directly paying WAVE for specific services or reaching out to the private sector. The county already contracts with some cab companies for transportation to the senior center; White suggested the county could further contract with private rideshare or taxi companies.
Part of that burden will be taken over by the state. As Coudriet mentioned during Monday’s meeting, as part of Medicaid transformation the state will become the ‘broker’ for transportation services instead of the county.
While the county seems to have made up its mind, at least for now, about its involvement with WAVE, there is still an ongoing conversation about the role of public transportation in the region, including in the campaigns for Wilmington city council and mayor (you can find election interviews with the candidates here, all are free to read).
Zapple said he expected to see more discussion on the issue, including how WAVE evolve to continue to serve those who rely on public transit, as well as those who might voluntarily ride it.
White said he believes WAVE should “re-invent themselves and innovate to maximize the more popular routes, lower wait times, and make the product they deliver more marketable. Public transportation will always be in need of some government subsidy where it makes sense and supports the elderly and vulnerable. And I support this.”
White added that “for those with whom it is a necessity, the government has a role to meet their essential transportation needs. But if we continue to deny the obvious – i.e. that under its present construct it is wasteful and is under existential threat due to disruptions in the transportation industry – then we are not doing our jobs.”
For Chairman Barfield — who said he was left with a “sick” feeling after Monday’s motion — and Zapple, the current move is in the wrong direction.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001