Berrien County Commissioners discuss Berrien Bus program

BERRIEN COUNTY – A Berrien Bus update was given to the Berrien County Board of Commissioners on Thursday morning, prior to a routine vote on approving an application for annual funding from the Michigan Department of Transportation and an approval for the transportation program’s Title VI plan.

Dan Fette, community development director, gave the update to the board.

During the presentation, Fette said that in 2019, the board of commissioners passed a resolution to form the Berrien County Advisory Transportation committee, referred to as BCAT, to evaluate the Berrien Bus program. In May 2019, BCAT recommended the BOC pass a resolution to approve the Berrien Bus Pilot Program for 2020 and 2021 with a $100,000 per year general fund contribution to fund an expanded service.  The intent was to test the Connect Berrien Service Plan and assess the demand for the general public service use of the Berrien Bus service beyond 2021.

Through 2020, many changes occurred. The Pilot Program was suspended due to the arrival of COVID-19 and related state mandates that took services down to strictly “essential only.” By May, Berrien County’s third-party operator of the service, TMI, terminated contracts and went out of business. By June, employees for the Berrien Bus staff were changed to “temporary status” at the recommendation of BCAT. In July, Berrien County assumed the direct overseeing of Berrien Bus and the Buchanan Dial-A-Ride services. Berrien County utilized employees for this task. In November, the BOC extended the temporary status of county employment for Berrien Bus staff, contingent that they need to be reclassified in 2021 if they reached more than 1,000 hours.

“We’ve managed Buchanan Dial-A-Ride for almost a decade now,” Fette said. “This winter, Buchanan and the City of Niles have been in discussions with having the City of Niles take over operations of Buchanan’s Dial-A-Ride. We’ve been assisting with that because we think it’s actually more appropriate for Niles and Buchanan to be managed along the same lines due to geographic reasons, and because they have identical funding structures.”

Fette said the discussion between Buchanan and city of Niles would likely be completed before October, when the federal 2022 fiscal year begins.

“At the same time, we will be meeting with representatives from various municipalities and high concentrations of ridership in hopes of forming new partnerships and identifying sources of local revenue, so we can sustain the transit for the general public,” Fette said.

Fette explained to the BOC that the Berrien Bus transit system would be at a financial “break even rate forever” if it were able to maintain a one-to-one ratio of contract hours and general public hours. However, the ratio currently sits closer to a one hour of contract to every two hours of public service.

Berrien Bus currently partners with the Berrien RESA, the Berrien County Truancy Academy, which is currently on hold due to virtual learning, the Department of Health and Human Services, Area Agency on Aging, Westwoods of Niles, Buchanan Rehabilitation Services, Career Technical Educaiton Consortium, as well as Berrien Springs and Lakeshore Schools.

“[This] has produced persistent deficits, which require some alternate source of revenue if the general public ridership service is to be preserved,” Fette said.

County Administrator Brian Dissette said the presentation and resolutions passed on Thursday were to put the topic on the radar of the commissioners and the public.

“We are trying to craft an agreement that takes transit and makes it something that is sustainable for decades to come,” Dissette said.

With Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, Dissette said the fund would operate in the black and give the BOC some time to find more partnerships for the service.

“That’s the real benefit from the infusion of the cash from the CARES Act. We have time to find the right partner, and you have time to do this so that people who are absolutely dependent on this service aren’t caught by surprise and left scrambling to find transportation option,” Dissette said.

The resolutions for Berrien Bus were passed as a part of the Board of Commissioners’ consent calendar.

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