By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Three private bus companies could receive $7.5 million in funds to resume service next month if Gov. Chris Sununu approves the recommendation of his legislative advisory board.
The advisory committee delayed action on requests for help from the Fisher Cats baseball team and Mascoma Community Health Center for help and defeated a motion to encourage Sununu to mandate mask usage and provide $500,000 for masks for any person who needs one.
Sununu asked the eight-member Legislative Advisory Board to the Governor’s Office for Relief and Recovery to vote on the recommendation presented by Department of Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan Wednesday for the three bus companies.
The money would be used to restart bus service that was suspended at the end of March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the plan developed with Sheehan office’s C&J Bus Service in Portsmouth would receive $3.5 million, Concord Coach Lines would receive $2 million and Dartmouth Coach in Lebanon would receive $2 million.
Private providers of intercity bus service were not covered under the Federal Transit Administration CARES Act funding although Boston Express, which is a state service run by Concord Coach, is eligible under the act as are other public transit systems like those on the Seacoast and in Manchester and Concord.
The state received $39 million in FTA CARES Act money, Sheehan said, and said her agency is reserving about $10 million for the Boston Express service which is tied to the reconstruction of Interstate 93 between Manchester and the Massachusetts border.
The three private companies carry 1.5 million passengers annually between New Hampshire and Boston, for work, medical services and recreational travel, she said.
“They are a critical component of our transportation system in New Hampshire,” Sheehan told the advisory committee.
The three private companies receive no subsidies like public systems do and operate on revenue from passenger tickets, she said, although Concord Coach receives some state subsidies for providing service to rural areas.
There has been a growing demand to resume bus service, Sheehan said, although the companies do not expect to approach the ridership they experienced before pandemic.
With both Massachusetts and New Hampshire reopening, the demand is growing and they should not wait too long to resume service or people will begin using alternative transportation between New Hampshire and Boston.
“We want them to be there when we get on the other side of this,” Sheehan said, “so commuters can rely on them every day.”
With 1.5 million customers a year, that takes a lot of cars off roadways, she said, and allows people to live in New Hampshire and work in Massachusetts.
Sheehan said the buses will have to be modified for social distancing which will reduce the number of riders, which will mean the companies will continue to lose money into next year.
She said the companies’ losses will be about $20 million through the end of the year.
The bus companies will need a significant amount of time to ramp up to be ready to resume service, Sheehan said, which is expected to be in mid-August although she would like to see it sooner.
The committee voted 8-0 to recommend the $7.5 million in CARES Act money for the bus companies.
The committee decided to postpone a request for $1 million in CARES Act money for the Fisher Cats minor league baseball team that plays in Manchester.
The minor league season was cancelled, noted committee member Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, and the team does not have any other method to bring in revenue this year, but does have fixed expense like its lease with the city with a $460,000 payment due in October and another in the spring.
D’Allesandro said the Fisher Cats have stepped up and held high school graduations, fireworks and other events at the stadium.
And he noted the team has raised over $6 million for charities in the area and holds programs for youths around the state.
“They have helped a lot of people and are a very worthy cause,” D’Allesandro said. “They are a vital player in the fabric of our community.”
Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig said the Board of Mayor and Aldermen are meeting next week to discuss if the city could defer the payments, but that will mean job vacancies will not be filled.
City officials did note that the lease payments go to service the bond issues the city raised to construct the stadium and those payments will have to be met by the city.
Michael Ramshaw, president of the NH Fisher Cats said the company received the maximum allowed under the Main Street Relief Fund, $350,000, and turned that over with additional money to the city for its June lease payment.
He said the company used the Payroll Protection Program to retain its staff but had to furlough half of the workers July 1.
“Our greatest chance to generate revenue during the year is gone,” Ramshaw said. “We are facing a loss of nearly $5.5 million in revenue with fixed expenses. We hope to be an economic driver again in 2021.”
But Republicans on the advisory committee had reservations about the request. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said he expects other communities are in the same predicament of having businesses not able to pay their property taxes. He said they really need to take an overall look at the situation.
Earlier in the meeting, he asked the head of the GOFERR, Jerry Little, how much money of the $1.25 billion CARES money remains and if the federal guidance has changed so the money could be used to “backfill revenues shortfalls” for government entities.
Little said about $250 million remains and there is talk of allowing more flexibility for states and municipalities to make up lost revenue, but that has not been approved.
House Minority Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, said the committee should delay a decision until its next meeting in August to see what the city does and if the federal government makes any changes in how the CARES money may be used.
The rest of the committee agreed to do that but did vote down a request from D’Allesandro to use $500,000 in CARES Act money for masks and to recommend Sununu issue a mask mandate.
The vote was down party lines, 4-4.
Mascoma Community Health Center
The committee also put off acting on a request for help for essentially $600,000 to keep the health center in business until next year when it intends to affiliate with HealthFirst so it will be eligible for greater federal aid as a federally qualified health center.
The center grew out of a grassroots effort begun in 2014, with the center opening in 2017 offering medical and dental services.
The center serves five towns and currently has about 4,000 patients, the committee was told, but the pandemic has reduced visits and revenues as well as donations.
Currently 30 percent of patients are uninsured, and 45 percent are low-income, with 490 on Medicaid and 479 on Medicare, officials told the committee.
The center applied for several applicable state CARES Act programs but received less help than other similar sized centers, said Peter Samson, Canaan town administrator and volunteer finance director for the center. But because they did receive help through the health care emergency fund, they cannot reapply for additional money, he said.
“Almost 4,000 patients are in danger of losing this center with many not having coverage anywhere else,” Samson said. “Please don’t forsake our efforts.”
Morse said he had similar requests from two dentists in his community. Committee members wanted to know how much remained in the fund and if there would be another round of applications.
They were told about $18 million remained in the provider fund and another round for applications would be announced soon.
The committee decided to delay acting on the request until its next meeting in August when additional information should be available.
The committee learned that about $250,000 in rental subsidies have been issued to date, with about 4,000 applications for assistance.
Won’t some people come up against the deadline for eviction, asked committee member Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, and she wondered what has taken so long for money to go out to landlords and tenants.
Committee members were told the group working on nonprofit grants is about to announce its decisions.
The board will meet again Aug. 26 to take up the Fisher Cats and Mascoma Community Health Center and will meet with school representatives about the costs of opening this fall and representatives of snowmobile clubs that maintain the state’s trail system.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.