MANATEE -- Riding Manatee County Handy Bus at least four times a week, the paratransit service is Valerie Matice's lifeline.
For the last three years, the 66-year-old has relied on the county paratransit services for transportation from her Anna Maria home to dialysis treatment three times a week, other doctor appointments and errands, including Publix and the bank. Matice spends at least $70 on the Handy Bus every month.
Now, with the county's proposed 50 percent increase in paratransit rates from $2 to $3, Matice worries some necessities may have to be eliminated to afford the higher fare.
"I am on a Social Security disability check, which makes it limited income, and what I'm going to have to do is choose between food, prescriptions or the Handy Bus when they increase it 50 percent," Matice said.
Facing higher demand for services in Manatee, county officials are proposing increasing the Americans with Disabilities Act services from $2 to $3 each way. County staff is also proposing rate increases for transportation disadvantaged services and veterans transportation, which would generate an additional $78,700 in fare revenue.
The Handy Bus provides rides for residents who, because of a disability or some reason, are unable to access the regular fixed-route system, which costs $1.50 per trip. There are eligibility requirements as well as an application process to become a Handy Bus rider.
Following complications from chemotherapy several years ago, Matice began having blackouts. Doctors found one of her kidneys was not functioning, and the other was functioning at less than 10 percent.
Each month, Matice spends $50 just to get back and forth to dialysis, a treatment keeping her alive. Matice has Medicare but it does not cover transportation costs.
"Fifty dollars on a fixed income for me or others who can't work is huge," she said. "Once again, they are hurting the lower middle to the poor people most. I've become accustomed to the $2 rate and budgeted that in."
The increase is a lot, Matice said, when you are living a "pretty bare-bones existence."
"I know it doesn't seem like a lot of money to most people, but those of us that are medically disadvantaged, we don't have the opportunity to even go and get a part-time job to supplement our income," she said. "I'm relatively existing even though I'm drowning in medical bills."
Bradenton resident Shirley Milton has been riding the Handy Bus for more than five years. She also relies on the bus to take her to dialysis three days a week. With an increase, she worries she may have to eliminate some pleasure trips.
"By the time I pay bills and pay for food and pay for medical, you don't have that much to pay $3," she said. "It would be good if it was a $1.50 or $1."
Bradenton resident Jim Whalen, who also rides the bus to dialysis three times a week, said it would be tough getting to dialysis without the service.
"It's a 50 percent increase, which is pretty steep," he said.
Matice said she doesn't know what she'd do without the Handy Bus service.
"We've got to do the things that got to keep us alive," she said. "Thank goodness for the service that gets us to these places. I don't know what I'd do. I couldn't afford a cab or an Uber."
Why the increase?
Ryan Suarez, county transit planning manager, calls the proposed fare change a "modest increase."
"We think it is a reasonable increase to $3 for those trips," he said. The fare has not been increased since at least 1996, he added.
In September, the county Handy Bus averaged 450 riders per day, Suarez said, which "far exceeds what we are capable of doing."
The county has to deny some trips because of lack of resources, with trip denials much higher in fiscal year 2015 compared with each month in 2014 except November, according to Suarez. The county prioritizes life-sustaining trips, he added.
"Our Handy Bus ridership levels are increasing dramatically," Suarez said. "There is definitely a need out there. We want to meet it. One way to do that is to modify the fare to hopefully keep up with demand."
The county is losing more than $2.1 million in fiscal year 2015 with the current fares for all the paratransit trips, according to county documents. Suarez said the service doesn't pay for itself through fares, forcing the county to subsidize the program.
"We need to increase our resources, i.e., the number of operators we have to maintain good customer service for the folks," he said. "It's really about maintaining as opposed to increasing. We are doing our best to regroup and really figure out how we are going to keep up with the demand. This is one of those tools at our disposal."
This year, demand has increased 10 percent for Handy Bus service over last year. Over the next five years, the county is projecting increasing demand.
Matice said she doesn't think a 10 percent increase should equate to a 50 percent fare increase.
With the ridership increase, Matice said the only effect is sometimes she has to "wait a little longer" for a Handy Bus.
The proposed fare increase would be a possible way to add drivers.
"Certainly there are going to be some folks that are going to be impacted based on their ability to pay," Suarez said.
The proposed fare increases were first introduced to county commissioners during a September work session. After gathering public feedback, the county will review results with the commission in January with possible implementation in March.
"It's not an easy time to be a policymaker when you are faced with these kind of challenges," Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said at the workshop.
Chad Butzow, deputy director in the county Public Works Department, told commissioners adding additional operators isn't going to solve the big-picture problems.
"It will fund something, but it's not your long-term solution," he said.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she has mixed feelings on a rate increase.
"It's a double-edged sword," she said. "It's hard to come up with that money when you make $800 a month. That seems like nothing to some and a lot to others."
A sign advertising this week's public workshops is posted on the bulletin board in the waiting room of the Bradenton Dialysis Center.
"Just say no!!" and "$1.00 more per ride!! :(" are written on the flyer in a black marker.
Manatee County is having two workshops to get input on the proposed fare increases: from 4-6:30 p.m. Monday at the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, 7632 15th St. E., Sarasota; and between 1-4 p.m. Wednesday in the commission chambers in the Manatee County Administration Building, 1112 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.
"We want to gather feedback from the public certainly any time we propose or make a change like this," Suarez said.
Matice, who said she has been involved in politics most of her life, plans to take the Handy Bus to attend both public workshops to "let them know that it's important."
"The way you effectuate change is by speaking up or showing up -- otherwise it will be a one-sided thing," Matice said. "Public works will go in there and want more money and we won't have our voices. There are so many that can't get there because of medical reasons."
Prepaid fare program
On Monday, Manatee County will launch its prepaid fare program for Handy Bus customers. The rider makes a minimum deposit of $50, and funds are drawn from the account as Handy Bus trips are booked. There are no fare discounts for program participants, Suarez said.
"We deduct money from the account set up," Suarez said. "Riders receive a notice when they reach a certain limit so they can replenish."
For the last two months, about 50 people participated in the county pilot program well-received by riders and operators, Suarez said.
"It's a customer-service feature," he said. "We do want to make things easier for the customer. Sometimes people don't have the right change or exact change. ... It definitely facilitates the use for them."
When asked whether she would participate in the prepaid fare program, Matice said she would participate if the fare is left at $2.
"If they raise to $3, I will be paying them in pennies, nickels and dimes," she said.
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.