More nonprofits who rely on volunteers in Charlotte and Sarasota counties who use their personal vehicles are becoming wary of the future as gas prices continue to rise.
Friends in Service Here, a nonprofit specializing in transportation for the disabled that has operations in Englewood and North Port, has seen increased demand in recent years.
Bonnie Littrel, president of FISH in Englewood, has 70 drivers on staff, and says FISH is starting to feel the economic pressure.
“As gas prices increase, it affects us, especially how we reimburse our drivers,” Littrel said. “We’re driving more miles. The closer gas prices get to $4, the more people ask for reimbursement.”
Carol Finnigan, treasurer of FISH of Englewood, said FISH is on pace in the current fiscal year (tallied in March) to pay out $7,278 in gas reimbursements. Last fiscal year FISH paid $7,718 to reimburse drivers for mileage. FISH reimburses drivers, upon request, at 30 cents per mile.
Drivers logged 26,000 miles in 2010, and saw a spike in 2011 with 53,000 miles driven, and is on pace with last year with 50,000 miles so far this fiscal year.
“We can use all the help we can get with volunteers and donations,” Littrel said. Bruce Isbell, president of FISH in North Port, faces a similar situation. “We’re fine when it comes to reimbursing drivers in the short term,” Isbell said. “We may need to increase the mileage rate in the long term.
“When gas prices were lower, we reimbursed at 20 cents a mile,” Isbell said. “We’ve been at our current rate for the past 18 months to two years. The higher the gas prices, the harder it will be. We can’t let these people down.”
In 2012, he said, his organization reimbursed drivers $2,496 for 8,321 miles driven.
FISH operates through a combination of donations and volunteers, with 30 drivers on staff. Donations pay for the answering service and insurance associated with transit. Some drivers will claim the gas usage as a charitable donation, Isbell said.
“We’ll operate as long as there are North Port residents in need of assistance for their medical needs,” Isbell said. “We served 800-900 people in the last four months. Since September, there’s a gradual increase in usage.”
According to Isbell, 650 North Port residents were served in 2011, 18-20 people a week who need a ride on average, and | 90 percent of the passengers are women. FISH of North Port has grocery runs on Thursdays.
“Most of the rides we service are medical-related,” Isbell said. “About 60-70 percent have doctors in Port Charlotte.”
Meals on Wheels in North Port has 52 full-time drivers and 21 substitute drivers; all are volunteers.
“Only one driver asked to be reimbursed for gas,” driver coordinator Fay Lee said. “As gas prices go up, more might ask. We may struggle to get more volunteers.”
Bernie Agnew, route coordinator and driver for North Port’s MOW, said he suspects more people might ask to be reimbursed if gas goes to $4 per gallon. Meals on Wheels of Charlotte County is not hearing many complaints from drivers about the gas.
“Our drivers are the most wonderful,” said director Mary Howard. “They’re not reimbursed. The drivers talk about gas prices, but we haven’t lost anyone yet.” Meals on Wheels has more than 100 delivery people with 12-13 vehicles and 60 routes serviced. Miles logged in December and January reached nearly 9,000 each.