SUDDEN change without prior notification from South Gippsland Shire Council to the booking and coordination arrangements for Corner Inlet’s community car has incensed the Foster Community Car Committee and a number of the car’s volunteer drivers.
The car will continue be parked in Foster at the hospital and will go on operating with volunteer drivers transporting Home and Community Care (HACC) clients to medical appointments on a door-to-door return basis.
However the previously Foster-based booking service and volunteer driver coordination has now been permanently moved to South Gippsland Shire Council’s Leongatha office.
This brings booking and coordination of all three of the municipality’s community cars into one place.
The part time community car coordinator in Foster has been offered a choice of redundancy or redeployment to an existing part time vacancy in a different capacity in Foster as there is not a coordination vacancy available at Leongatha.
Foster Car Committee, which has been progressively disenfranchised since the 1994 Council amalgamations resulted in the community car operation being taken over by South Gippsland Shire, has now gone into recess after having operated for some 20 years since it first obtained a cast-off vehicle from the former Shire of South Gippsland. Since the amalgamations 16 years ago, South Gippsland Shire Council has been responsible for insurance, vehicle replacement and employment of the coordinator.
Council’s Chief Executive Officer Tim Tamlin said that last week’s changed arrangement “means we can make better use of the cars to improve services to our community.
“By centralising bookings across the Shire, it may be that the Foster car can link up with the Leongatha car to take Home and Community Care (HACC) clients to Melbourne or Valley appointments, freeing up the vehicle for the rest of the day to service other Corner Inlet clients.”
He went on, “We can also see opportunities where the community car could be used in our Learner Driver L2P program to provide driving practice for young people after work or on weekends with a nominated mentor.
“HACC clients will always be the priority but it’s about thinking outside the square and maximising our efficiency in providing better service.”
In response to the upset at the lack of prior consultation, Mr. Tamlin said that because the matter involved making a position redundant, he couldn’t discuss the change with the community beforehand.
“It’s not about the employee, its about the position.
“We‘re extremely appreciative of the dedication and service the Foster Community Car Coordinator has provided over the years and thank her and the Foster Community Car Committee sincerely.”
“Only the booking number and coordination location has changed,” he reiterated, “nothing else has altered.”
While the Foster Car Committee Secretary Nola Mills acknowledged that the Committee did not have formal status, she felt the Council’s lack of notice and consultation about the change showed a lack of respect for volunteers and left the committee and the volunteer drivers feeling very disappointed.
“We were asked to meet in Foster with Council’s Chief Executive Officer Tim Tamlin and Acting Family Services Manager Jeanette Draper for a little chat about the community car so it was out of the blue to be told that as of the next day, our coordinator was redundant and coordination would be done at Leongatha.
“We were also told that the decision had been made for operational reasons and that Councillors couldn’t interfere with it.”
Ms Mills continued, “We were told there had been a complaint but weren’t given the details, so we can’t address that complaint and after all these years, if there’s only been one complaint to Council that means our coordinator has been super efficient!”
Along with Immediate Past President Brenda Moore, Ms Mills emphasised that the Foster Coordinator always did an excellent job in keeping the vehicles clean, taking bookings literally at any time of day or night during seven days a week, keeping the mobile phones charged and having all the trip details ready for the volunteer driver.
Committee member, joint founder of the community car service and former Councillor Heather Bligh was present at the meeting with Mr Tamlin and Ms Draper.
She felt that the Committee had been “ambushed” and told Mr. Tamlin that, “Council has been trying to get rid of us for years.”
After the meeting Ms Bligh said, “We believe we have been successful in getting so many volunteer drivers because it is work to help our local communities and because people get asked by others they know to join as drivers.
“It’s such a shame that the Shire is spending all this money on community planning and a volunteer coordinator yet here we have a community looking after itself successfully and they’re dismantling it and treating us with absolute disdain.”
Ms Bligh added, “It might not tick all the corporate boxes but it was working for Foster and was an example of the core of why Foster and district works as a community.”
She also discounted the Council’s proposal to join up trips to clustered destinations for multiple clients as “treating people like parcels” because sometimes the first person collected was the last one delivered to an appointment, and that even if the clients were attending the same hospital in Melbourne, their appointments could be in quite separate locations.
“Trying to coordinate everyone’s appointments and pick up times (which can get altered or delayed without notice at the hospital) while running around between one or more of the big hospitals or specialists’ suites is very tiring and stressful for the driver too,” she stated.
“So I see the change as a downgrade of the service, not an enhancement,” she concluded.
While acknowledging that the original vehicle was long gone and that rules about client use of the service have not been the same as those introduced by the original Car Committee for some time, Ms Mills said the Committee and its volunteer drivers “had a sense of ownership” and felt they were doing “a social service in helping people have a day out as well as providing transport to medical appointments.”
She offered, “We would welcome the opportunity to take the service back with open arms if the Council changes its mind.
“We would also like to see a customer satisfaction survey conducted now and again in a few months time so there is evidence about how the clients feel about the change.”
Asked how clients could still make after hours bookings following the change, Mr Tamlin explained, “Customers who call to make bookings after hours will be answered by Council’s after hours service and a message taken.
“If the call is urgent, then like all after hours urgent matters, the appropriate staff member will be contacted and the caller will be phoned back.”
Ms Draper was asked about transition arrangements for instances where clients called the coordinator at her home on the previous booking number – possibly because they hadn’t read their mail or lived in the hills and would not receive the letter before the change took place.
She advised that as the Foster coordinator would still be a paid employee at the time, she expected the calls to be passed on to Leongatha.
In relation to vehicle cleaning, mobile phone charging and arranging for servicing the community, Mr. Tamlin advised that car would be maintained and supported in the same way that such tasks are undertaken for other Council cars.
To assure volunteers who might be worried about the vehicle being used by learner drivers, L2P Program Coordinator John Ernst said that “L-plate drivers have a massively lower accident rate than that of the general population and the vehicle is insured regardless of what community use it is performing at the time.
“The young adults in the mentored L2P program will be from the Corner Inlet community and are disadvantaged by their lack of access to a family car or supervising licensed driver, so they are also a worthy beneficiary of a community car, as obtaining their licence will give them access employment and education opportunities.”
A letter about the changes has been sent to drivers and includes a survey asking where they are prepared to travel to pick up clients.
Mr. Tamlin has assured that no one will be forced to pick up people from areas they are not willing to service.
If a number of the volunteer drivers resign as Ms Moore predicts, he said that replacing them would be simply a “challenge to overcome.”
Coastal Promontory Ward Cr Mohya Davies of Foster said she had been assured by the CEO that the change was an operational matter under his responsibility area and was for the purposes of an improved service.
“It is really important to make the most of the resources we have and we must learn to be good at that while simultaneously tailoring the service to the needs of the community.
She continued, “Both transport service access and the ageing rate of the Corner Inlet population – which is higher than I other areas of the Shire – are vital issues.
“Our volunteer drivers have been doing a fantastic job and it would be a shame if any of them resigned from the community car service over this.”
Cr Davies offered, “If anyone has problems with the new procedure, I urge them to register their complaints with Council’s customer request facility (call 5662 9200) and they are also welcome to contact me on 0429 386 297.”
Her colleague Cr Jeanette Harding of Toora has not yet provided a comment on the issue.
BOOKING THE COMMUNTY CAR
All HACC clients wanting to book community transport should now call 5662 9363 regardless of where they live in the Shire.
Included with the letter about the changes, the Corner Inlet clients were provided with a fridge magnet with the current telephone numbers for all HACC services including community car.