MILLVILLE — The elderly are going without the option of a senior services van as the result of an ongoing dispute between the towns of Millville and Blackstone over a regional senior transporation contract.
The towns' inability to come to terms on an agreement since June recently prompted Blacktone to tell Millville it can no longer transport Millville seniors with its senior vans.
The decision has left about a dozen Millville residents who counted on the vans for doctor visits and to make other health-related appointments to seek other means of transportation.
Millville Selectwoman Jennifer Dean Wing said the town has been looking to access senior transportation services in Uxbridge and Mendon on an as-needed basis but that a long-term solution is needed.
"There has been nothing in Millville since Sept. 6 — no van," Wing said. The people affected by the lack of service include a senior who uses the van to make his kidney dialysis appointments and another resident who is legally-blind and counts on the van for her transporation needs, Wing noted.
The two towns had been in a regional senior transportation agreement until it expired in June.
Officials in Blackstone, which owned the vans used to transported seniors in both communities, had been working with Millville's Senior Director, Carol Smith, until town voters eliminated her position as a cost-savings measure at the Financial Town Meeting.
Emails concerning the lack of a new contract were exchanged between the Millville and Blackstone town halls regarding senior transportation over the summer but did not result in any settlement. Blackstone then put Millville on notice that it would no longer provide transportation to the town in an email received in Millville on Sept. 6.
Millville Executive Secretary Helen Coffin said Thursday that she has a few theories on why the towns did not reach an agreement over the summer but doesn't see how that should translate into seniors being left without transportation.
"I don't understand why it has become the issue it has become," Coffin said. "It seems like it would be a very simple thing to settle."
Coffin suspects that some of the impasse between the towns could be the result of an unrelated negotiation on the regionalization of the town dispatch services. Millville had gone out to bid on the dispatch services and when faced with a $45,000 annual cost for joining Blackstone's system, opted to join with Mendon for an annual cost of $30,000. Blackstone's email concerning the shutdown of senior transportation in Millville came the day after the dispatch relationship with Mendon was decided, according to Millville officials.
Coffin believes that Blackstone officials "held off" on settling the senior transportation issue while awaiting Millville's decision on the dispatch agreement. Wing also suspects that "politics" may have come into play in the talks with Blackstone and suggested the matter be revisited by both sides.
"I said at our meeting in Millville that this needs to be decided in the best interest of the individuals that need it most. Town leaders need to set aside history and politics and do what is right," she said.
When contacted about the dispute on Thursday Blackstone Town Administra-tor Daniel Keyes refuted Millville's contention that the dispatch agreement and senior van issues were linked in any way and instead pointed to a lack of action by Millville to bear its full share of the senior program for the lack of a van operating in that community.
"I have a fiduciary responsibility to the Town of Blackstone and I am not going to subsidize the Town of Millville," Keyes said.
Under the past agreement, Millville paid Blackstone a percentage of the van's operating costs based on its annual use of the service.
Keyes maintained that Blackstone had been working in good faith to reach an agreement with Millville on senior transportation and only ended its service to Millville when determining the town was not operating in a likewise manner.
The transportation contract with Millville ended on June 30 and the selectmen agreed to continue the service for 30 days while a new contract was negotiated, according to Keyes. He said he continued the service for another 31 days even though a settlement could not be reached. At that point, Keyes said, it was no longer possible for Blackstone to bear all the costs of running the vans out to Millville, the expenses of fuel, staffing and maintenance, without any financial commitment from the town.
"I've got to protect the interest of Blackstone," he said.
The regional transportation agreement between the towns was actually the result of a state mobility transportation grant that helped Blackstone buy one of the three vehicles it uses to operate its senior transportation program. The use of regional funding left Millville officials with the belief that they held a stake in the Blackstone program, but Blackstone officials contend that as the actual owner of the vehicles there is no requirement to maintain service to Millville in light of a past shared grant.