A bus company run by a charity will have to win a bidding war to keep a contract to carry disabled passengers.
The Order of Malta currently has a £190,000-a-year deal to provide its door-to-door Dial A Journey service across the district which will run until March 2013.
But Falkirk Council’s powerful policy and resources committee thinks the price is too high and, in an effort to guarantee value for money, has decided to put the business out to tender next year so it has options before the current agreement runs out.
Half a dozen firms, including a major bus firm and large community transport operator, have already expressed an interest in taking over.
At its meeting this week the committee went ahead with its controversial move on the casting vote of committee convener and council leader Councillor Craig Martin.
Councillors also narrowly agreed to cut funding for the Shopmobility part of the service from next April by £15,000 to £49,000 a year, although it has offered DAJ that contract until March 2017.
The accessible transport service across Forth Valley is supported by grants from Falkirk, Stirling and Clackmannanshire Councils and has been described as a ‘Rolls Royce” service by users.
Company chairman Herbert Coutts said: “We have been able to absorb an eight per cent cut in funding from local authorities over the last two years but inflation and increased fuel costs have left us in a tight financial squeeze but we are very keen Dial A Journey continues.
“Our committment remains solid but it’s important we work in partnership with the councils.”
Councillor Martin said: “I hope Dial A Journey comes top of the tendering process. It has a head start on the others and does a great job, but we have a duty to make sure Falkirk Council tax payers are not subsidising other areas, that would be absolutely unfair.”
Provost Pat Reid said: “The disabled people in Falkirk are subsidising the disabled people of Stirling by £65,000 a year. These are the facts. It’s regrettable, but Dial A Journey has a year to get its act together and win this contract, and I hope it does, but in the current economic climate this level of subsidy can’t be maintained.”
Councillor David Alexander, leader of the SNP Group that failed with an amendment to scrap the tender idea, claimed: “This administration has been hell bent on putting this service out to tender from day one.
“It will be the private sector who will compete for this and run it for profit and the users will suffer as a result.
“By doing this we are putting a voluntary organisation which only last Monday won an award for its partnership working with us at risk.
“Their reward for that is being told they will have to compete with private firms.
“To pull the plug on the grounds of cross-border subsidy is a very poor decision. We really need to consider our priorities and obligations.”