By Jason O'Boyd, Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2013 —
There’s something to be said for longevity.
For almost 27 years, Gwen Hinson has served as transportation director for the Stanly County Umbrella Services Agency, or SCUSA as it’s typically known. She was hired from what is now Stanly Industrial Services to work as SCUSA’s first and — as it turns out — only director.
When the system began on July 1, 1986, it’s main goal was to bring together the different organizations in the county that primarily shuttled it’s customers to and from particular destinations. It could be a doctor’s appointment or a trip to the grocery store or even a longer trip out of the county to a Veterans’ Administration hospital in cities as far away as Durham, Charlotte or Winston-Salem.
SCUSA began with nine vehicles and uses 16 buses or vans today. It services 17 different organizations in Stanly County, from the YMCA, to Monarch, Inc. and other places such as daycares, after-school programs and the town of Norwood for its nutrition site for the elderly. SCUSA also services qualified residents in Montgomery County.
And the biggest misconception is SCUSA is only for old or disabled people. In fact, the organization services people of all ages from all over the county.
“We’ll pick up a mom, pick up her kids at school to take them to the doctor, take the kid back to school and then take the mom back home,” Hinson said.
“We take quite a few people to the community college. We’ve got all kinds of people, young, old, disabled, not disabled riding with us and going places.”
Numbers Don’t Lie
SCUSA ranks as one of the highest in its peer group in the state, according to 2012 data released by the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Public Transportation Division. The study largely represents rural counties and is comprised primarily of 21 peer groups within 31 counties which don’t operate on a fixed system such as a bus route in a major city that makes routine stops.
SCUSA ranks ahead of the state average in efficiency trips per mile (.20 for SCUSA to .171 for the state), passengers per hour (3.48 to 2.68), cost per trip ($13.22 to $16.64), subsidy per trip ($5.40 to $5.68) and cost per trip by year ($13.22 to $15.29). In 2012, SCUSA traveled 313,790 miles over 17,966 hours, down slightly from 333,525 miles over 18,786 miles in 2011.
Those numbers are very competitive, especially against bigger counties with larger cities and budgets such as Buncombe (Asheville), Cleveland (Shelby), Randolph (Asheboro) and Johnston (suburbs of Raleigh).
“Gwen’s system, she’s an extremely well-respected person among her peers across the state,” Stanly County Manager Andy Lucas said.
“You hear from folks at the DOT and they respect what she does. SCUSA has a record of safety and compliance, and they do things that are innovative with training. They are at the top of their field, especially with rural transportation providers.
“You look at the studies done on an annual basis like cost per mile and per passenger and we always score very well. You look at the metrics of how we scored and we’re always near the top of rural counties. But we’ll always find ways to do things better and work toward continuous improvement.”
Hinson is always dealing with situations involving funding, keeping costs low along with getting the most out of state and federal grants that are used to help keep SCUSA running. In 2012, SCUSA received $827,591 in total funds. Broken down, that’s $164,404 in federal funds, $173,321 in state funds and $489,866 in local funds, which includes fares and contracts from organizations. That’s down from the $851,558 received in 2011.
Those early days were quite challenging for Hin-son, from trying to develop a system that would work to doing it all within a workable budget. But she’s got a pretty good handle on things now. She’s been routinely involved with several state committees and agencies, serving titles such as president, vice president and secretary. She recently completed 18 years of service with the N.C. Public Transportation Association.
“When we first started the system, all I had learned I learned at the vocational shop as far as transportation,” Hinson said.
“Then when you get inundated with the state throwing all these reports and all these management plans and all that. And it’s not like they come down and teach it to you. You get all this then all of a sudden you’ve got all these people who want to go somewhere and you’ve got all these reports to do and you have a part-time secretary and a little hole in a place somewhere and that's your desk. So I cried a lot the first six months.”
How It Works
SCUSA operates from 6:30 a.m. until around 3:30-4 p.m. on weekdays. Hinson estimates at least three trips to Stanly Community College are taken a day, in addition to other routine trips for those who may be going to the doctor’s office, picking up groceries or going to a destination for job training, for example.
Hinson estimates 50-60 people are transported on a given day. SCUSA averages from 4,000-6,000 trips a month both within the county and outside of it, depending on holidays.
People who need to use SCUSA can call to arrange an appointment. Depart-ment of Social Services handles scheduling for Medicaid patients, which makes up around 25 percent of SCUSA’s clientele. That schedule is sent to SCUSA, which incorporates it into the rest of its daily routine.
Since there’s not another service like this in the county the organizations serviced by SCUSA receive a tremendous benefit.
“I couldn’t say enough good things about (SCUSA),” said Sharon Scott, director of Depart-ment of Social Services for Stanly County.
“It’s a wonderful organization and they are responsible to our needs and client’s needs. If someone receives Medicaid and they don’t have a way to get to an appointment, it’s up to Social Services to provide those services. We rely on SCUSA for that transportation.
“We are on the phone constantly to arrange a trip. So it’s a wonderful relationship and I think they are a great organization and serve the county well, not just for DSS clients.”
The more people that use SCUSA during a given time, the lower the costs per passenger. But a light day doesn’t mean someone will necessarily be turned away or asked to change their appointment.
Not that there are many of those. Hinson said SCUSA cut down to one driver on Mondays but had to add another recently because of the increased demands on that day. Tuesday through Friday is even busier.
“We are considered demand response,” she said.
“You call in and make an appointment, we pick you up and then take you home. We ask for at least 24 hours, but our schedules have gotten to the point where now we ask people ‘if you get an appointment today that’s for two weeks from now, go ahead and call it in.’
“We probably have some appointments on the calendar for December of this year or at least September of this year. We’ll take them now as far as you’ve got them in. We do get filled up so quickly.”
And that includes general public traffic throughout the county, which is divided into zones. People who use SCUSA will pay a fare based on where you live and where you’re going — the cheapest is $1.50.
“That’s for people that are not affiliated with any agency that’s going to have the agency pay for that trip,” Hinson said.
“Money in that grant can’t be used to supplement any other grant or funding source we may have. If they are a Medicaid person, Medicaid is going to pay for that trip, but if they are not Medicaid or Senior Services or vocational workshop or whatever, then they pay the public fare.”
Kay Eddins is the operations supervisor at SCUSA and has been with the organization for 20 years, starting out as a driver. She primarily does scheduling but also handles everything from assigning vehicles to problems that might arise either with those vehicles or the people involved.
“People appreciate it. You’ve got that handful that will say ‘thank you,’ and that makes your job worthwhile,” Eddins said.
“A lot of people don’t, but then you’ve got some that will tell you thank you and they appreciate what you do and if it wasn’t for you, they couldn’t go anywhere. There’s a lot of people we transport that live by themselves. We know more about them than their family knows, most times.
“There’s a human factor in this job as well as doing the job. You get to know these people. You are interacting with the public all the time you’re at work.”
That’s one thing that motivates a lot of the drivers to do what they do, a lot of times going above and beyond just driving someone to and from a destination.
Don Gordon has been a driver with SCUSA for three years, typically working three days a week as a driver for out-of-country trips. He retired as a worker for the state of North Carolina for 30 years and wanted to give back to the community.
“I was looking for something part-time and this about fits the bill for me,” Gordon said.
“I felt like giving back. There are some people who really need this service. That’s when you feel good when you’ve helped somebody.”
Hinson said they go to numerous functions to explain what SCUSA does and how it can benefit them. In a lot of cases, she said people know what they are about but don’t really feel the need to look into it further until the need becomes greater.
“I got a call the other day from a man whose father had fallen and had broken his foot,” Hinson said.
“Now he was in a wheelchair and had no way of getting him anywhere. He couldn’t walk and they couldn’t lift him, that sort of thing. He needed to get to the doctor the next day. Until that happened, that man never needed us.
“Now somebody has told him we can do the wheelchairs, so he needed to get his father on the system right now. That’s what we find a lot of times.”
Evelyn Jaquinta has been using SCUSA for around two years, primarily because her sight has decreased dramatically over the years.
“I live alone and I’m 82. I’m on a walker and I can’t see very well. I use them every week,” she said.
“They take such good care of me, I don’t have to worry about this. I came out of the nursing home after I broke my left foot. I’ve had knee and vision problems, too.
“I couldn’t do without them. They treat me like a queen, they really do.”
Eddins has heard stories such as that and is motivated because of it.
“What we do can’t wait until tomorrow. We’ve got things on the schedule that have to be done and they have to be done today when they are scheduled,” Eddins said.
“If somebody isn’t here, you have to cover. You can’t call them and say ‘sorry, driver is out.’ That can’t happen.”
The sames goes for Lucas.
“If folks realized the number of people served and how it cuts across all social demographics of the community, they would be surprised,” Lucas said.
“We certainly provide transportation for seniors and elderly. They need to get to a doctor’s appointment, and it’s reliable and gets them to the place and back safely.
“It’s also about people going to workforce development, with them going to the community college and continuing education classes. And people just need to run errands and go to the grocery store.”