Renfrew — Prior to the COVID pandemic, it was not unusual for the Sunshine Coach, the town’s mobile service designed to transport persons with physical and mental disabilities, to provide more than 36,000 trips in a single year.

However, based on the non-profit’s business model, the Sunshine Coach would need to dramatically increase its fare rate if there are any future government cutbacks in terms of annual funding.

This, and other revelations were discussed last week during the town’s council meeting when a delegation led by Sunshine Coach Executive Director Norm Dagg presented an overview of the operation.

He said since the service began in 1985 under the banner of “Friends of the Disabled” with a small fleet, the service has grown to a fleet of 18 vehicles employing fulltime and parttime drivers who service the Town of Renfrew, Admaston/Bromley, Bonnechere Valley, Greater Madawaska, Horton, and Whitewater Region townships.

“We receive funding from the MTO Gas Rate program, Friends of the Disabled, municipal partners, sponsorship from service clubs and businesses, and one-off funding from various government programs,” he said. “Ambulatory trips make up about 72 percent and the remaining include about 25 percent wheelchair with attendants making up the last five percent.”

Mr. Dagg also informed council the average fare for a trip is $9 and is set with the mindset of what most clients can afford. The majority of clients are recognized as disabled and receive a living allowance from the various levels of government, and that allowance does not permit a huge hike in the fee charged to clients for use of the service.

Among the major challenges facing the future of the Sunshine Coach are loss of revenues, staffing issues, replacement of older vehicles.

In 2022, Sunshine Coach generated revenues of $948,383 but its expenses totalled $1,278,077 which represented a shortfall of $329,693.

“If we were a conventional business whose only source of revenue was fares, we would suffer significant losses annually,” Mr. Dagg told council. “This is a model that is clearly unsustainable. Fare revenues consistently fall below expenses and to raise fares to cover our expenses would result in pricing our services far beyond the reach of our economically vulnerable clients that is our mandate to serve.”

The current model does not allow the service to grow to seek out new forms of revenue.

 “We believe we are very near, and possibly even at the theoretical maximum under these models,” he said. “Unless a new sustainable model can be developed among various government stakeholders, maintaining our current fleet size, staffing levels and trip levels will likely be the best we can do.”

He said COVID has had negative effects on the service. Prior to 2020, the average cost to replace a vehicle was $56,000. The most recent replacement vehicle came with a final tab of $84,000, representing an increase of 50 percent.

“Replacing vehicles as they become exhausted will be very daunting, cost prohibitive and may result in downsizing our fleet, leading to probable trip rationing,” he added. “Our drivers and staff require specialized training and like many businesses, we are having trouble maintaining our current levels.”

He presented a chart listing the age of current drivers and only one is under the age of 39 years; six drivers fall between the ages of 40 to 59 years and 18 drivers are over the ager of 60 and below the age of 79 years.

“We recruit many drivers who are second-career individuals and we have been very blessed to recruiting fine people who can handle difficult situations and can deal with persons with disabilities,” he added.

He said increased trips require driving clients into Ottawa and based on projections, the cost of fossil fuel will increase by 100 -200 percent within the decade. He also said the expansion of Highway 17 to four lanes will only increase the need for this type of service as more retirees are returning to the area and a new funding model is needed to sustain the service.

Council Seeks Answers

Councillor Andrew Dick said as a lifelong resident he was unaware of the financial challenges that Sunshine Coach is facing and asked about funding in terms of municipal donations.

Mr. Dagg pointed out that each municipality is required to forward the gas tax towards the service and each municipality is eligible to make additional contributions to help the service.

“It would be nice to have increased contributions, but we are going to have more trips that we may not be able to meet,” he said. “So, we welcome any additional contributions, but we also know that we are not Toronto, and the provincial government does not have a lot of money flowing into Renfrew County. So, if we can perhaps start at the county level, we need to persuade the province to direct more money towards this type of service.”

Reeve Peter Emon said the effects of COVID has had an impact on the service, and there were earlier discussions towards a new funding model, but the post-COVID period has shown the need for a shift in funding formulas.

He also made a pledge as warden of the County of Renfrew, he will convene a meeting of relevant agencies (hospitals, paramedic services and various transportation services) to begin the process of addressing the shortfalls facing Sunshine Coach.