by justin strawser

SUNBURY - Northumberland County commissioners approved a resolution Tuesday that provides county-wide transportation services for 1,300 residents who were left without rides to medical appointments when the county decided to discontinue the state-funded service last month due to rising costs.

The decision will subsequently save the county taxpayers $509,000.

"This is another real good move to save the county money. This is the best move we can make," said Commissioner Merle Phillips before the unanimous vote.

On the recommendation of PennDOT and the Department of Public Welfare, the commissioners assigned Rabbit Transit, York, as the temporary transportation coordinator for the county.

"Providing county-wide transportation services requires specialized expertise and Rabbit Transit has been successful in York County and was appointed by the Adams County commissioners to manage the Adams County Service," the resolution states. "Rabbit Transit turned the Adams service around, improving customer service while lowering administrative costs."

The company starts July 1, 2011, and will temporarily provide service for two months, at which time the commissioners will decide whether to fully assign them or go a different route, said Commissioner Chairman Frank Sawicki.

The commissioners voted earlier this month to discontinue the Medical Assistance Transportation Program, which is offered by the Department of Public Welfare and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation as a free transportation program for low-income eligible residents to get to medical and dental appointments.

Despite state reimbursement, county officials said the number of eligible residents rising due to changing state criteria and increased gas costs have caused the transportation department to lose $421,000 in general fund money in 2010.

Had the program continued, said Commissioner Vinny Clausi, the 2011 loss would have been the same or more.

"We cannot afford to lose that money anymore. We're moving in the right direction," Clausi said.

That kind of money lost, said Phillips, is "unbelievable."

The commissioners believe quality of the service will either remain the same or improve.

Clausi also noted when he became a commissioner nearly four years ago, the county had 840 employees; it now has less than 500, and so there are fewer workers to manage such programs in-house.

"This is a good job and the right thing for the taxpayers," he said.