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Stagecoach Riders Wait, Worry Over Shakeup

  • A Stagecoach bus stops at an East Randolph, Vt., residence in March 2004. (Valley News - Tom Rettig)

    A Stagecoach bus stops at an East Randolph, Vt., residence in March 2004. (Valley News - Tom Rettig)

  • A Stagecoach bus stops at an East Randolph, Vt., residence in March 2004. (Valley News - Tom Rettig)

Randolph — After riding Stagecoach Transportation Services’ 89er shuttle bus between Randolph and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center almost every workday for seven years, Kevin McGinty can’t imagine returning to his car for the commute especially with winter on the prowl.

“Even with a Ford Focus, which is pretty good on gas, it’s between $100 and $125 a week to keep the tank full, with prices where they are now,” McGinty, who works in revenue management at DHMC, said recently. “Compare that to $10 a week to ride the 89er. … Do the math.”

In the wake of the abrupt departure of Stagecoach’s founder and longtime executive director, David Palmer, in mid-November, McGinty and fellow riders of the nonprofit group’s five commuter routes out of Randolph couldn’t help calculating the more expensive alternatives. “It was all very vague,” McGinty said of media reports in recent weeks of Palmer’s resignation. “It definitely raised our eyebrows.”

Which is why Stagecoach’s board of directors and the Vermont Agency of Transportation are hastening to reassure commuters — as well as the elderly and low-income passengers who depend on Stagecoach’s team of volunteer drivers for rides to medical and social service appointments and errands — that the buses and the cars will keep rolling during the search for Palmer’s replacement.

Palmer resigned on Nov. 11, at the end of several weeks of disputes with the Stagecoach board of directors and its finance committee over how to solve the nonprofit’s fiscal problems, and over the timing of his retirement after almost 40 years at the helm.

Paul Haskell, the town of Sharon’s representative on the Stagecoach board and a member of the nonprofit’s finance committee, said recently that Stagecoach’s auditing firm estimated its debt, over several years, as building up to $329,000 as of June 30.

“It was a perfect storm of a great many things — rising costs and a stagnant budget,” Haskell said. “It had been cascading as it went along.”

Last week, Palmer said he does not “recognize the figure Paul Haskell references.

“While Stagecoach did maintain a line of credit to buffer cash flow ups and downs,” Palmer continued, “that does not reference a level of debt. Indeed, the audits of the past five years show that three years ended in the black, and for the five-year period the net assets increased by $100,000.”

The AOT and the Stagecoach board are now negotiating with Addison County Transit Resources, a nonprofit in western Vermont, for an agreement to manage the agency temporarily.

“They have a lot of really loyal customers, and we want to keep them riding,” said Barbara Donovan, public transit administrator for the AOT’s public transit section. “We’re in touch with (the board of directors) at least every day. We have someone in (Stagecoach’s Randolph headquarters) at least every week.”

Haskell, who with Royalton representative Tim Dreisbach is overseeing day-to-day operations at Stagecoach’s Randolph headquarters, emphasized that Addison County leaders “don’t want to own us. They don’t want to merge. They believe in the autonomy of both organizations.

“It’s going to be a long process to figure out how that (partnership) is going to work,” Haskell said. “Fortunately, (Addison County’s) executive director, Jim Moulton, leads the Vermont Public Transportation Association, and has a lot of experience in this kind of work.”

Moulton for 12 years has run an agency that provides more than 175,000 rides a year — commuters and “dial-a-rides” combined — to residents of 23 towns containing 36,000 residents.

Stagecoach provides 125,000 trips a year in 29 towns, in coordination with eight social service agencies and with major employers such as DHMC, Dartmouth College, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Vermont Law School.

“We don’t want these services to go away or even be temporarily stopped,” Moulton said earlier this month. “We do have a lot on our plate (in Addison County), but I’m fortunate to have a very strong staff and a very strong board. If there’s a way for us to bring our skill and expertise across the mountains, that’s really important. A lot of people are relying on these services.

“We have to figure out a way to succeed.”

Palmer said he hopes Moulton’s “expertise and experience,” in whatever form, will “be helpful in the (Stagecoach) organization regaining some stability.”

“The real concern has to be for the continuation of this service, for the large number of people who benefit from it,” Palmer said. “For that to be disrupted would be an unacceptable outcome.”

After a summer and fall of looking with the directors, the finance committee and AOT officials for ways to restructure Stagecoach’s debt, cut costs and raise revenue, Palmer in late October offered to resign at the end of 2014.

“I gave the organization a very sound transition plan for that final year,” Palmer said. “Everything was designed to create a smooth landing.”

The board of directors read it differently.

“It was at that point where we came to the unhappy conclusion that David’s leadership … that it was time for a change,” Haskell said. “We were prepared to continue to call on David for his expertise. Sadly, that didn’t happen.”

On Oct. 31, Palmer learned that the board expected him to step aside on Dec. 31, 2013. After neither side over the following week could agree on when or how to discuss the terms of the transition, Palmer submitted his resignation.

“There’s not a scintilla of anything untoward,” Haskell said. “It was just the snowballing effect of funding issues. He met his match in 2008 and 2009, with the deepest, most punishing recession in 80 years. It’s like a Jersey barrier: You hit it hard, and it hurts.”

Haskell added that Stagecoach is “actually slightly in the positive (for the current fiscal year). We’ll go more robustly into the positive as we move into January and February.”

Last week, Palmer acknowledged the challenges of running a nonprofit transit system while meeting the strings attached to financial support from federal and state agencies.

“It takes more and more time and more and more administrative attention,” Palmer said.

“My position had evolved to the point where you had to make sure the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed. All this while putting our safe and reliable service on the road every day.”

Palmer said he would not accept a seat on Stagecoach’s board of directors, in the event that supporters on the Randolph Selectboard were to nominate him.

“Even a year from now, I can’t see it happening,” Palmer said. “I wasn’t going to have my shadow linger.

“My departure needed to be a clean and complete break.”

Palmer, who began the system as a Vista volunteer in 1975 — “It was me and one driver,” he recalls — leaves behind a $2 million-a-year operation that receives $1.7 million a year from the AOT, covering 24 vehicles, 18 drivers, and three workers in the office, as well as mileage reimbursement for 25 volunteer drivers.

Stagecoach also receives subsidies from such employers as DHMC and Dartmouth College to carry employees on three shuttle runs a day each way — on the 89er route and on the River Route between Wells River and White River Junction.

According to the college’s Parking and Transportation section and its Financial Services section, Dartmouth in 2012-2013 contributed $37,500 to Stagecoach.

“In addition,” college spokeswoman Amy Olson said, “all Dartmouth College riders are reimbursed for their Stagecoach fares, of which we have 53 staff who have taken the buses.”

Among those college employees is Stagecoach board Chairwoman Gidget Lyman, who estimates that she rides the 89er from her home in Sharon to Hanover three to five days a week, depending on her schedule.

“Not only are you provided with a safe ride to work — you get to know the other commuters on the bus and build friendships,” Lyman said in an e-mail.

“The drivers are amazing, and the customer service they provide to the riders is above and beyond. … I love to read, and riding the bus gives me more of an opportunity to read or to unwind before getting home.”

DHMC spokesman Rick Adams said D-H spreads $170,000 a year in subsidies among several area transit agencies, including Stagecoach, Advance Transit, and The Current from southeastern Vermont. He added that Stagecoach makes “about 12,000 passenger ‘drop-offs’ ” a year at DHMC, D-H Heater Road, and the Colburn Hill financial offices in Lebanon.

Haskell said his board hopes Moulton and his Addison County staff can help Stagecoach find “business opportunities that are out there to expand the service and expand the revenue options,” and to determine whether and how Stagecoach can resume driving Medicaid patients to appointments, thus earning federal reimbursements.

“It’s all about serving the people who need to go somewhere,” Haskell said. “How do you meet those needs with more than a garden-variety transit operation?”

David Corriveau can be reached at 603-727-3304.