Volunteer drivers scarce after mileage law

For years Rock County residents could count on the public transportation network for a ride.

For rides outside the network area, United Community Action Partnership would rely on a group of volunteer drivers.

However, a federal law has caused the volunteer drivers to quit in the past two months.

“We know rides are not happening,” said Shelly Pflaum, UCAP’s access coordinator. “The main reason we don’t have rides in Rock County is catalyzed by the mileage reimbursement.”

In March the Minnesota Department of Revenue clarified questions about volunteer driver reimbursement.

The federal law indicated only 14 cents of the 53 cents UCAP was reimbursing its drivers per mile was untaxed. The 39 cents per mile is taxable income. Since the statute became known, UCAP has followed the 14-cent non-taxable income formula.

Pflaum said the majority of Rock County’s volunteer drivers are retired and many are on fixed incomes. Any additional income could jeopardize their current retirement benefits.

“They can’t afford to volunteer both their time and upkeep of their vehicles,” she said.

In the first five months, Rock County logged 127 volunteer trips or an average of 25 trips per month, according to data supplied by UCAP, who began administrating the county’s Heartland Express service in 2016. The trips averaged 130 miles and required about four hours of volunteer time. The majority of the trips were for medical reasons, Pflaum said.

In June three trips were logged.

“We have had no active volunteer drivers since then,” she said.

As a response, UCAP has launched a campaign to have lawmakers reconsider the non-taxable mileage reimbursement amount.

Rock County Commissioners supported the efforts to change the law by providing a letter of support.

“This is the ideal solution for transit systems in small Minnesota towns that are often located 30 miles or more from regional hubs, and in particular, specialized medical care,” the letter stated.

“In Minnesota, without volunteer drivers, human service agencies and transit systems will struggle to find transportation resources for more than 250,000 trips a year.”

Pflaum said discussions with other public transportation personnel reveal the shortage of volunteer drivers is occurring throughout the Midwest.

In the meantime, UCAP is partnering locally with A.C.E. of Southwest Minnesota to coordinate volunteer drivers for Rock County residents. A.C.E. is exempt from the mileage reimbursement tax under the Domestic Volunteer Service Act.

For more information about volunteer driving, contact A.C.E. in Rock County at 507-283-5064.

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