Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Bus System System Revamped

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Bus System System Revamped

Article excerpt

Long lines form as SCAT tries a new way to avoid rider fraud

SARASOTA

Long lines and inconvenient pick-up times have frustrated users of Sarasota's discounted bus passes under a new distribution system.

Starting this month, riders have to go to designated sites and register in a database called the homeless management information system to get a pass. Sarasota County Area Transit, or SCAT, switched its distribution of the so-called Liberty Passes to combat the resale and abuse of the program.

People could previously just mail SCAT a request with cash and get a monthly Liberty Pass, which sells for $8 instead of the normal $50 month-long pass. They could also show up at some agencies and ask for a pass. There was no way to verify whether they had received another one that month, and people would resell extra passes on the street.

An audit exposed the pass abuse two years ago. It was costing the county thousands.

"It was out of control," Cyndy Zambella, SCAT's fiscal division manager, said.

Last year, SCAT on average sold 1,400 Liberty Passes a month. In the first two weeks of the new system, 350 passes were sold, Zambella said.

Steve Bellinder is one of the pass users who has been stymied by the new system. He works at Walmart and said the hours that agencies distribute the passes make it difficult for him to pick one up. Organizations have varying windows of time when they give out the passes, all of which are between normal work hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Bellinder recently spent a Thursday stopping by three agencies he thought gave out the passes. He found out Sarasota Housing Authority and Jewish Family & Children's Service only give them to people who already are clients of their agencies, and Resurrection House has stopped giving out passes altogether because they did not have staff to handle the homeless management information system process.

He is now trying to figure out how to get around with a limited budget.

"There are people who might abuse the system," Bellinder said, but "I have legitimate cause to take advantage of that service and I'm being denied it. ... I'm being forced to pay regular fares that I can't afford."

"I've run into a ton of people on the streets who are in the same situation, who are like, 'How are we supposed to do this?'"

Smoothing the system

Zambella hopes that in two months the "hiccups" will be smoothed out.

The long lines at the agencies distributing passes are primarily occurring because they have to enter new clients in the homeless management information system that is used to track services provided to needy people in the county.

Agencies also have to verify eligibility. Liberty Pass recipients must be homeless, living in a shelter or making less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $17,235 for a single person and $35,325 for a family of four. …

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