CRESTVIEW — A concerned resident broached the topic of public transportation during a June 8 town hall meeting hosted by Okaloosa Commissioners Nathan Boyles and Graham Fountain.

Becky Brice-Nash, the facility director at Crestview Manor, approached commissioners and several other county and city officials to voice her concerns about Okaloosa County’s transportation company, Maruti Fleet and Management LLC.

'I AM EMBARRASSED' 

Crestview Manor, an assisted living facility with 62 residents, has been having issues with Maruti that include drivers not picking up residents on time and making them late to doctor's appointments multiple days in a row, and abandoning elderly patients at doctor's offices for hours, according to Nash.

According to Nash, this is not the first time she has approached the county about these issues; she has been to four county commission meetings this year and her problems have been going on for at least 18 months.

The newest issue Nash brought to the attention of the commissioners was that Maruti hadn’t paid 65 employees on June 5, and the employees still hadn’t received their money by June 8.

“I don’t have the staff and I don’t have the money to get [62] people to doctors,” Nash said at the meeting. “I know that the road is an issue, but these people here are not getting paid … I am embarrassed. I’ve said it over and over again how embarrassed I am for this county … No more. These people need to be paid.

Two Maruti employees attended the meeting and told the council about the issues they have been having for several months. Although one employee said she loves her job, she stated that it is hard to continue working when she’s not getting paid.

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RECCURRING ISSUES

According to Elliot Kampert, Okaloosa County’s growth management director, the problems are being taken care of.

“The explanation that has been given to me—and apparently all the employees have received their pay—was that they switched to a new bank, Wells Fargo, because they are setting up a direct deposit system, Kampert said. “They haven’t put that into effect yet, they’re saying it’s going to be available to you June 20.

“However, because it’s a new bank, they’ve just opened this Wells Fargo account, when they transferred money to [First National Bank], Eglin Federal Credit Union and the Teacher Federal Credit Union, a security hold was put on several of the accounts because they didn’t recognize the Wells Fargo account.”

When contacted by a News Bulletin reporter, a Maruti representative said they would send a formal statement on Monday, but the statement never arrived.

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The same issue happened in June 2016 when 73 local Maruti employees were not paid. According to Boyles, the county’s public transportation, once provided by a private, not-for-profit company known as Okaloosa County Transit, has been provided by Maruti for approximately two years; they are under contract for five years.

Boyles said that less than a year into the contract with Maruti, they started seeing serious issues, particularly with the paratransit service; the fixed-route system was improving while paratransit was falling apart.

“That appears to be largely relative to Maruti’s consistent challenges in recruiting and retaining a qualified workforce,” Boyles said. “If you don’t have good people, you’re not going to have a good system.”

The commission has put the company on probation numerous times, and they have seen bouts of improvement followed by reoccurring issues, according to Boyles.

“There have been improvements in service; you have these individual situations … and they’re egregious,” Boyles said. “What you have to look at when you’re trying to make decisions about whether this provider keeps their contract, it’s kind of bigger-picture stuff.

“Whether or not they can improve quickly enough to the level that we expect them to, that’s an open question.”

Boyles said that the commission has directed county staff to prepare contingency claims in the event that a transition away from the current provider is required; however, because federal dollars are involved, there are procurement limitations, and because this is a contract that requires continuous operation, the very act of transitioning to a new provider can be very challenging.

“The general direction of the commission has been to try and bring this contractor into compliance because that is likely to be less disruptive to the users of the system than terminating this provider and trying to find a replacement on an emergency basis,” Boyles said.