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Commission delays decision on Friendly Rider facility

As the thermometer dipped below zero Friday, Friendly Rider's phone rang at a steady clip.

"On cold days like these it's pretty crazy," said dispatcher Rick Pederson, who had handled more than 250 calls by 2 p.m.

Friendly Rider's home in the human services headquarters was described as temporary when the program launched in 2003. But 10 years later, Pederson and transit coordinator George Behl are still in the space, while boxes of records spill into the adjacent hallway.

"It's crazy cramped in here," Pederson said. "It's a good thing George and I get along good."

Wadena County Commissioners discussed long-term options for Friendly Rider during a lively 90-minute discussion at a special board meeting Friday morning. County staff stressed that a consolidated facility with both dispatchers and buses would allow the county to keep transit decisions local as the state moves toward regional management. They presented their preferred plan to buy a building next to the highway department, but in a consensus decision commissioners decided to delay a decision until getting more specific details about the finances at two meetings later this month.

County weighs options

Human Services Director Paul Sailer and County Engineer Ryan Odden told the board transit needs would be served best if they approved a purchase agreement to buy the vacant "Bob's Auto" building on Harry Rich Drive for $132,000. The cost would be split between the highway department and human services, $50,000 each, and a $32,000 contribution from a Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust dividend.

The dispatcher would move to the new building, which would also house the bus fleet that is currently located in the Wensman Building next to human services.

Commissioners also considered remodeling the Wensman Building for transit and for offices to alleviate the courthouse's space issues as well as a new county board meeting room.

"If we do Bob's building none of that would be accomplished," said Commissioner Ron Noon.

Built in 1969, Bob's Auto was completely remodeled in 2009. Most of its 6,300 square feet is shop space, but it also has offices and a storage room. And unlike Wensman, it has bathrooms and heat.

Behl called Bob's Auto a "gem." Staff said remodeling costs would be far less than the minimum half million dollars it would take to make Wensman a suitable home. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, which provides the bulk of Friendly Rider's funding, would make lease payments, retiring the building's debt - and then some - within 10 years, they said. Since the county might transfer transit oversight from human services to the highway department, they claimed the location also makes sense.

"It just looks to me like it's a pretty good deal," said Commissioner Bill Stearns, who noted Wensman's comparative expense, the difficulty of having buses and offices in the same building and the fact that the building is on the National Trust for Historic Preservation list, complicates matters.

"There are many agencies that would have to get involved."

But several commissioners questioned taking Bob's Auto, which yielded $1,650 in property taxes last year, off the tax roll.

"We're a cash strapped county the way it is," Commissioner Rodney Bounds said. "Once it's gone, it's gone."

Noon said he needed to be convinced the county should buy another building. "We've got to justify this to the constituents. I've got to tell them why we're doing this."

Commissioners pressed Sailer to provide assurances that MnDOT lease money would come through and the county wouldn't be adding a risky liability.

"There are so many unknowns right now I couldn't make a decision," Bounds said.

Although a MnDOT representative couldn't make any promises, Sailer said the official indicated the state would definitely not provide money for Wensman and "the signals are all very positive" for Bob's Auto.

Declining to take a formal vote, commissioners decided by consensus to wait to take action on the purchase agreement, which expires Dec. 31 but could be renegotiated, until later this month so they could get more specifics about financing and perhaps make a counteroffer in hopes of reducing the building's price.

Behl emphasized Friendly Rider's sound financial situation - running a surplus year after year, while operating with fare proceeds and state money rather than county tax dollars.

"I'm not afraid we'll ever have a problem where we're going to have to go to the county to ask for operations money," he told commissioners.

After the commission moved on to other matters, Behl and Sailer said the delay made sense.

"Never hurts to have more information," Sailer said.

Leader or follower?

Behl said it's important for Wadena to improve its facility or see it's operations taken over by a regional entity.

"It's not just a want," he said. "We need a new facility, especially if we want to be a leader. If you want the one that's going to give us a chance to be a leader, it's gotta be Bob's , if you want to guarantee that we would be a follower, then go Wensman."

Sailer said he's in discussion to form a regional dispatch with Becker and Hubbard counties. Right now, there are about 50 rural transit operations in Minnesota, but the trend is for that number to shrink as counties combine dispatching efforts.

Commission Chairman Dave Hillukka asked why Wadena County, the smallest of the three, should take the lead.

Stearn said a possible new job, a regional dispatch coordinator, is one reason.

Another, Behl said, is local control since a Wadena-based dispatcher knows the area better than an out-of-towner. "We give a personal service."

With local buses, Park Rapids uses a Bemidji-based dispatcher. It's worked well so far, said Hubbard County Social Services Director Daryl Bessler.

"We've actually been able to serve more people and it's been less costly," he said. "Dollars are tight so we have to look for ways to be more efficient and effective and still provide the quality of services people expect and deserve."

With today's technology, it's less important where the dispatching happens, Bessler said. "With the software that's available you could have your rides dispatched from India if you wanted that."

Nancy Nelson, Becker County human services director, said the county, which operates its own transit system, hasn't decided whether to join a regional Wadena dispatch. "We as directors need to think outside the box about how we can do some of these services without sacrificing the transportation needs of each of the communities."

Sailer said he's already been approached to consider joining regional services in Beltrami, Crow Wing and Douglas counties. If Wadena County doesn't act, Behl said, it's only a matter of time before transit gets outsourced.

"I wouldn't say it's a possibility, it's a reality," he said. "Either you can lead or you can follow and wait for it to happen. We're trying to pick our dance partner instead of being told who our dance partners are."

Service not affected

The benefits of a new transit facility, county staff said, are more behind the scenes than on the buses.

Friendly Rider served about 52,000 riders in Wadena and northern Todd counties last year with four buses, three in Wadena and one in Staples that has recently been replaced.

In September, the program added a fixed hourly route (from Humphrey Manor to Super One Foods) for one bus, while the three others pick up riders - with two hours notice - and take them to requested locations from 7:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays. The bus runs on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Wadena and Staples and there's a Sunday route, from 8 a.m. to noon, in Wadena. There's also weekly service to Sebeka and Menagha, daily weekday trips to Verndale and Staples and an as-requested route three times a week to Hewitt and Bertha.

At $1.25 a ride for trips under 2 miles ($2.50 for 3 to 9 miles and $3.75 for 9 or more miles), Friendly Rider is cheaper than other area transit systems. In Brainerd and Baxter, for instance, fares run from $2 to $2.50.

"We've built a good reputation in Wadena," Behl said. "I think most people understand the need for Friendly Rider."

For Wadena resident Donna Moore on Friday, it was either hop on Friendly Rider for a ride to her family's house or walk in the freezing cold. The program lives up to it's name, said Moore, who takes an average of three trips a day. "The drivers are really nice."

While ferrying a few people around town Friday, bus driver LeRoy Rentz kept in constant contact with Pederson over the radio, adjusting his route based on passenger requests. He said he knows the riders, many of whom have special needs or are senior citizens, pretty well.

"I never thought I'd enjoy being with elderly people," Rentz joked. "But there's a key to that: Become one of them."

It seems like plans for a new facility frequently change, he said. The Wensman building works well for him. Although he drives around for a living, he walks to work, which wouldn't be possible at Bob's Auto, many more blocks away.

"For me, it's handy," Rentz said. "I would hate to have to take a car to work. But they gotta do what they gotta do for the right facility."