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December 6, 2013

Suwannee Valley Transit Authority moving forward-Turning around a multi-county agency

Live Oak — Gwendolyn Pra was hired by the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners to serve as  the administrator for the Suwannee Valley Transit Authority, a public agency that was over $2 million dollars in debt at the time. Since Pra took over in August of 2011, she has pulled the agency out of debt and improved the quality of service.

“I realized after about four hours of being here the agency was about to close its doors,” Pra said. After a few minutes of calculating numbers, she realized the agency was over $2 million in debt. Even the electric bill had not been paid for quite some time.

The building’s maintenance had been long forsaken. The electrical system was out of code. The plumbing was a mess. The bus shop and office was disarray. The phone system was 20 plus years old. The software was outdated. The former staff was using a data base to schedule trips, but they were taking reservations using a pen and paper. There were no exit signs. There was no fire system. The maintenance performed on buses was not properly maintained.
It seemed Pra had quite the challenge ahead.

Pra, who is a former employee with the Department of Transportation, knew what needed to be done to get the agency up to par and knew it would be a steep hill to climb.

“The big thing was, ‘how are you going to pay for this?’” Pra asked herself.

“When I first got here, it was about survival and trying to get the place back in the black,” Pra said. “We knew we had to take some tough measures to keep the doors open.”

Although it was no easy task, Pra said within 15 months of taking over the agency, SVTA was completely out of debt. It should be noted that Pra did that without receiving any additional funds.

“We just jumped in. I knew I was in an emergency situation,” Pra said. “We were probably within five day of closing.”

Pra said she began gaining ground by removing service that didn’t have a funding source. There were seven routes in Lake City and two in Live Oak that met that criteria and were cut immediately.

She then called in Bill Steele, a long-time friend who was retiring from the military, to move to Live Oak and become the director of operations for SVTA.

For quite some time, Pra said there was no such thing as an eight hour day, as they worked long hours as a team to get the building and the company back on its feet again. Within a year-and-a-half, the building was brought up to date.

“We spent a weekend up here scrubbing and getting the building ready to paint,” Pra said.

In another effort to save money, Pra obtained approval with the court system to be a place where individuals needing community service hours could work for the SVTA and gain the hours they needed to comply with the court.

“Bill reviewed their skills and put them to work at their skill labor,” Pra said. “That was a huge help to us.”

Pra gave much credit to the DOT who assisted in remodeling the garage.

“We documented the need to them, and they helped,” Pra said.

Pra said she stopped many outside services to save money such as coffee, cleaning and lawn care. For over a year, someone at SVTA was responsible for maintaining the lawn. Staff members worked as a team to clean the office.

“Things we could do ourselves, we did,” Pra said.

Pra takes pride in knowing her office is truly a public service agency.

She recalled during Tropical Storm Debby, bus drivers were reporting to the office in the midst of the storm to go and help others.

“Many drivers were already on their way to the office by the time I called them,” Pra said.

During the storm, airboats were used to rescue individuals from their homes which were under water. SVTA buses would then pick the people up and transport them to the local storm shelter. Pra said 286 people were loaded up on buses and carried to safety.

SVTA has approximately 30 buses that service three counties: Columbia, Hamilton and Suwannee. The agency relies on those counties boards of county commissioners and DOT for funding. Medicaid funds are used strictly for the services they provide to Medicaid services.

Pra said she has three goals: continue to stay within the operating budget; provide services to those who need it; and expand the services currently offered.

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