DeKALB – For nearly 40 years, the Voluntary Action Center of DeKalb County has been the paratransit provider for the city of DeKalb, operating buses for residents unable to drive themselves, delivering medication and meals to those in need.
That contract was terminated Monday, and city officials say their hands are tied.
Per the funding the city's transit services are provided through the Federal Transit Administration and the Illinois Downstate Operating Assistance Program, the City of DeKalb is required to perform regular competitive searches for transit services, and then accept the lowest bidder.
"That contract is 40% of our budget," said Ellen Rogers, VAC's executive director, who said there will be impacts to VAC's staff because of the changes, which go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. VAC's contract with the city expires Dec. 31.
That lowest bidder this time around was Transdev Services Inc., the same company that provides buses for the Huskie Line (with Northern Illinois University since 1971) and then through the city's consolidated public transit system as of 2018, a $10 million operation. It's an international company which operates in 20 counties on five continents, according to city documents. The Request for Proposal mandated by the FTA presented three options to the City Council.
The Voluntary Action Center's request was the highest bid at $9,878,367, and Transdev's was the lowest at $8,466,817. VAC has been working with the city of DeKalb for paratransit services since 1982, about four decades ago. Meals on Wheels and other rural paratransit services outside the city limits will continue through VAC.
Before the 7-0 vote approving Transdev for the new contract, which will go through Dec. 31, 2023, (Ward 3 Alderman Tracy Smith recused himself because he works with VAC), Rogers appealed to council to include a caveat for the transition phase.
"I am here tonight because of our role as advocates of the paratransit-dependent in our community," Rogers said. "We take our role in providing services to the most vulnerable seriously. We're not asking that you vote against awarding that contract, just delay it. Three months to make that transition. My presence here tonight is by no means sour grapes. We certainly ... understand the FTA process."
DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith echoed City Council comments on the difficulty of the decision.
"I, too, have been a supporter of Voluntary Action Center for so many years," Mayor Smith said. "Several years ago, we had another company that had served this community for 30 years: Waste Management. Waste Management is a top-drawer multi-national company. They had provided great service to the city of DeKalb, but as I cast my vote, I did that for the very same reason I'm casting it tonight, and that is to adhere to the integrity of the bidding process."
The mayor's comments were in reference to a June 2018 decision by the city to drop its longtime trash hauler for the lowest bidder after 25 years.
Rogers said while she's not surprised at being outbid since it's a matter of money – a local nonprofit competing against an international company – she has concerns about Transdev being able to provide for paratransit clients' needs, especially in light of Transdev having to amend its operating contract with the city of DeKalb twice already during the pandemic, due to a shortage in bus drivers.
"Our biggest concern is they are not meeting the current contract," Rogers said. "Unfortunately, we’re a local not-for-profit and I can of liken it to a mom-and-pop grocery store competing with the likes of Jewel [Osco]. It's very difficult. Quite frankly, I was never confident about our ability to be truly competitive in that arena. Transdev certainly on paper outscored us in every area."
In response, W.C. Pihl, senior vice president of business development for Transdev, said the company will offer anyone laid off by Voluntary Action Center a job with Transdev.
"We will work hand-in-hand with you during the transition to make sure current employees want to come over and work with us," he said, addressing Rogers directly. "None of those employees would go backwards in pay or benefits. When it comes to retaining employees, there are different things to this contract versus NIU service."
When asked by Ward 2 Alderman Bill Finucane – who was a bus driver for the Huskie Line from 1972 to 1985 – what assurances they have that they'll be able to hire bus operators for their paratransit services in light of struggling to do so for Huskie lines, Pihl said Transdev paratransit operators would all be full-time, as opposed to many Huskie drivers who are often part-time NIU students.
Pihl said he'd also offer a $2 wage increase for paratransit drivers compared to Huskie drivers.
"Having been on the board of VAC at one time myself, I really hate to have to vote to approve it, that's not a slight of you, that's just because of how well VAC has done," Finucane said, but cited bid constraints.
According to city documents, after the 2000 Census, the DeKalb-Sycamore area was designated an urban center, which meant the region became eligible for grants from the Federal Transit Administration, and the Downstate Operating Assistance Program through the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Rogers said when the bus system consolidated in 2018, that placed VAC – who's contract with the city was already in effect through Dec. 31, 2020 – in an unfortunate position.
"Unfortunately, what also came with [consolidation] is putting us in a different league in competition for any future agreement," Rogers said. "And we agreed on an extension – I believe it was pre-pandemic – realizing that they were going to need more time on developing the RFPs and getting that all taken care of."
City officials said they know ending their paratransit contract with VAC after so long will be detrimental to its operations.
"This will have a very profound impact on the VAC business and the workforce," states city documents. "However, the city would jeopardize its continued federal transportation funding and risk a potential legal challenge if it did not honor the results of the RFP. The city simply does not have the funds – $1,411,549.90 – to make up the different between the VAC bid and the Transdev bid, or the sustainable capital resources to supplant the recurring heavy subsidies from the downstate operating grant program."
Ward 1 Alderman Carolyn Morris said her vote came with a "heavy heart."
"It really just doesn't seem like there is a logical way that we can have TransVAC be the organization that does this after the FTA's process," Morris said. "So I just wanted to say I'm sorry, because that's really hard."
Rogers said the change in services comes at a paramount time. Though ridership is down across all consolidated providers, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increased need in other services VAC provides, such as Meals on Wheels, transporting residents for medical reasons such as daily kidney dialysis and other needs.
Additionally, VAC buses are outfitted for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other necessary add-ons to their duties for paratransit, Rogers said.
She said VAC also provided employees with hazard pay during the pandemic, and has already outfitted buses with plastic shields to protect drivers with their own money – something Transdev hasn't yet done although that's in the works.
Rogers said regardless, VAC will continue to operate as best it can, providing Meals on Wheels and paratransit throughout DeKalb County except for the city of DeKalb. She said there will be a transitional period likely with a different provider, although some grants VAC receives, Transdev is not eligible for. She expects VAC may have employees impacted as well.
"This is so challenging for everybody. 2020 really sucks. It needs to be done," she said. "But we have worked very hard and we were going to do it with or without the support of the city."