Augusta could terminate contract with Mobility transit company

Panel will discuss company's handling of public transit



Mobility Transit’s days as operator of Augusta Public Transit might be numbered.

A motion to terminate the city’s 9-month-old contract with the private firm is going before the city’s public services committee Monday at the request of Commissioner Joe Jackson and after several commissioners complained about the firm’s handling of employees and vendors.

The call came even as new Mobility President Cullan Meathe was in Augusta on Thursday and Friday seeking to meet with commissioners about the issues.

“No, I’m not going to see them,” Jackson said. “They had an opportunity six months ago to address some of the issues they had.”

A critic of both the decision to outsource the bus service and of the service under Mobility, Commissioner Bill Lockett said in reference to the recent invitation that it was “a little late to extend the olive branch.”

Lockett was the first commissioner to voice concerns about Mobility, most of which he learned from former city bus drivers hired by the firm after the city laid them off last year.

If the city severs the contract with Mobility now, those workers are “more than willing to stay on with the city,” Lockett said.

Lockett has alleged, among other things, that Mobility has been slow or delinquent in paying driver-trainees a per diem for their work and has overlooked overtime requirements.

He and Commissioner Alvin Mason first brought to light issues Mobility had in paying local vendors for goods and services such as uniforms and utilities.

Several months into the contract, the firm also changed principals, with Kevin Adams, the former president who negotiated the contract with the city, swapping places with Meathe, a Florida taxicab executive with a history of unpaid bills.

Meathe has a trail of liens and judgments against him and transportation companies he owns in Florida and Michigan, including a 2011 judgment for $881,675 and a 2008 judgment for $250,513 against his Palm Beach Transportation Group, according to court records.

Charged with developing a contingency plan if the commission votes to terminate the contract in 90 days, City Administrator Fred Russell said the city is looking at “some temporary arrangements,” such as individual contracts with workers, with a goal “not to lose any service.”

Mobility General Manager Mike Rosson said bus ridership has increased since the firm took over, and Augusta Bus Riders Association President Geraldine Wilson said her group has seen positive changes.

“Since the new bus company has taken over, we have observed the drivers are much nicer,” Wilson said. “Before, you could count the nice drivers on one hand.”

Wilson said the association also has taken note of Mobility’s willingness to send a van out when a bus misses a timely stop, and its implementation of printed route schedules.

“These are little things, but it’s all we’ve got,” she said.

Wilson and several commissioners questioned why the city entered into a contract with a firm associated with bad debts.

“Either someone did not investigate things properly, or someone was just trying to get this out of the city’s hands,” she said. “Maybe Mobility is not a good fit, but the city was the worst fit.”

Commissioner Jerry Brig­ham, who has been ill and missed some commission discussions about Mobility, agreed that the city did a poor job managing the transit service.

“I’m going to try to be there Monday in committee with open ears and listen,” Brigham said. “I would suspect (Mobility is) not the only contractor we’ve got that has a problem paying vendors.”