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Yes, Island Transit has seatbelts!
Island Transit Bus Seat Photo by Author

Seems as if KING 5 has finally joined the Accountability Convoy heading to Coupeville.  We sure welcome KING 5 participation in seeking the truth from Island Transit.  One thing caught my eye in their half-complete report – namely nobody from Island Transit would go on-camera to explain the Island Transit financial mess nor has Island Transit posted to its website statements to its Board about these events.

Already Bob Pishue of the Washington Policy Center has tweeted his policy paper to KING 5Perhaps with their silence, Island Transit 100% agrees with Mr. Pishue that ultimately, “Instead of trying to secure more money from state taxpayers, Island Transit officials should better manage public tax dollars to rebuild the public trust and restore reliable and efficient bus service.”

Recently I asked Martha Rose, Executive Director of Island Transit the following questions – which I will post here.  When I get a response, I will copy-paste the replies:

BTW I listened to the audio from Friday’s meeting last night and put it online a moment ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OjjagGkHzE&feature=youtu.be.  The following questions arise from my listening to the audio:

  • What would have happened if Island Transit not gotten a loan for its operating budget shortfall?  More cuts?  Insolvency/bankruptcy?
  • What exactly are these state operating grants to help transit agencies with shortfalls?
  • Who provides these grants?
  • Who assured Island Transit officials the grants would be likely dispersed to Island Transit?
  • When will the grants arrive, if provided?
  • What if the grants do not arrive and the soft money disappears?  Any backup plans such as renegotiating the loan terms?
  • Why are Island Transit statements given to Board Members about the fiscal crisis/morass not on the Public Information tab of the Island Transit website yet?

That e-mail to her and Island County Commissioner & Island Transit Boardmember Helen Price-Johnson was sent Tuesday at 12:40 PM/1240 Hours.  I am still writing up the notes of the Island Transit meeting, and have other work.

Before calling for action, I would hope if Island Transit cannot answer these questions a through review by the Washington State Auditor’s Office can answer these questions.  State Auditor Troy Kelley has promised State Senator Barbara Bailey – with my hyperlinks:

Thank you for sharing your concerns about Island Transit. I appreciated reading the attached news article and letter containing serious allegations relating to Island Transit. Although we had been in contact with the Transit’s Executive Director and seen the news article, we had not received the letter until you forwarded it to us. Additionally, we are evaluating the questions posed in the letter sent by the elected delegation for the 10th Legislative District.
Based on our communications with the Executive Director, we are scheduled to start an audit at Island Transit on August 11, 2014. Our financial and single audit will review the Transit’s fiscal year ending December 31, 2013 financial statements and federal compliance. After examining the documents you provided along with the District’s activities, we will also conduct an accountability audit to evaluate their internal controls that ensure compliance for the safeguarding, and use of, public resources.
As part of our audit work, we will evaluate the questions you have identified in your letters. Upon the completion of our audit work, we will be in contact with you to discuss our conclusions.

Without alleging anything but to be proactive one would hope since state legislators are exempt from the Public Records Act, the State Auditor’s Office will make full and immediate disclosure of their audit results – not just findings but also any management letter(s) and verbal recommendations.  Because it sure appears Island Transit HQ doesn’t feel accountable to the community… or to even its rank and file.

Your relevant comments and observations are always welcome.  Spammy comments will be deleted without warning.

26 Replies to “North by Northwest 10: Zero Accountability to the Community by Island Transit?”

  1. I find the lack of financial accountability appalling. While Community Transit and Pierce Transit were busy making necessary cuts to their system to match the significant decline in revenue, and King County Metro was watching its money, Island Transit just blew caution to the wind. It’s devastating for Island County residents who depend on their service. It’s a huge island and to have spotty transit service is unfortunate.

    I’m glad to live in King County, where a thoughtful process is being played out to make necessary cuts to preserve service. We will still have some Sunday service, and the routes I use will only continue to get more crowded as more people use transit and service gets cut on other routes, but 17% doesn’t sound so bad anymore compared to Island Transit.

    1. John;

      I find your comment the best I’ve seen so far on my posts. Although Island Transit in 2008 sought the very last of its taxing authority, Island Transit too “blew caution to the wind”. Nobody was checking the state of finances at Island Transit until Island Transit somehow supposedly ran out of cash.

      I will also say this much: It is going to border on impossible for me to ask Seattle Transit Blog readers to help Island Transit users with any further bailouts without answers to the questions I’ve posed. Even more so since King County Metro needs – and deserves – help coupled to some route restructures. Questions I’ve posed since Tuesday.

      Joe

  2. The problem seems to be mis-management of public funds from the board of directors. I think the board of directors should all quite and allow the county executive to take over Island Transit because they would management public funds in the correct way.

    BTW, maybe they should start charging fares to help get local funds to run all the routes.

    1. Zach;

      You might be right but…

      Island County has no county executive per se, but two County Commissioners sit on the Island Transit Board. One of whom bailed not that long ago and now is running for a Kitsap County office in tea partier Kelly Emerson – and now replaced by an elderly, ailing Interim Commish; the other is Commish Helen Price-Johnson.

      It would be best if Washington State would let Camano Island be its own county and turn Whidbey Island over to Skagit County for reasons mostly irrelevant to STB. Or at least Island Transit to Skagit Transit if things are as bad as I read, see and hear. If.

      I certainly wish we could put fares on Island Transit – but fare free didn’t sink Island Transit through the early 1990s recession, the 2000-2002 dot-com & 9/11 recession nor most of the Great Recession. Fiscal mismanagement did put a big hole through Island Transit.

      1. I dread the thought of turning over the finances of Island Transit to Island County. Yes, it’s a sad comment, but after the Freeland Water and Sewer District fiasco, the Whidbey Fairgrounds “strategic plan” and now the derailing of Island Transit, I think we need to find a better way that trusting the wolves while they still have feathers on their muzzles.

  3. This is Bob,

    John, while you are correct PT and CT cut service, they are now adding service back. Metro, however, has not cut primarily because they enacted a tax increase and diverted property tax money to bus service. Also, Metro is receiving a $35 million tax windfall this year due to a rebounding economy.

    The King County Council adopted only the September cuts, and can/will reduce and eliminate future planned cuts.

    This is what I have been saying all along, that it’s not a lack of tax money, it’s budget mismanagement.

    1. > The King County Council adopted only the September cuts, and can/will reduce and eliminate future planned cuts. This is what I have been saying all along, that it’s not a lack of tax money, it’s budget mismanagement.

      Point of order, in the Irish tradition of presenting additional facts or opinions relating to an unmade decision: King County only adopted the September cuts because Seattle can’t get a transportation benefit district election to the voters until the November ballot. (You’ll remember that they were prepared, in a 5-4 vote, to not adopt any of the cuts and simply “figure out the money later.”) Notice that the routes Seattle said it would pay for–the Owls–before the vote are off the chopping block.

      I see the Metro situation as much, much different than Island Transit. KCM claims that it made the requisite cuts (I mean, they cut staff positions, gutted the capital budget, cut benefits, cut the number of “extra” buses on routes, ended expansion plans that are desperately needed, etc.) but that the level of service asked of it isn’t in line with how much money it receives. As a regular user of King County Metro, though I realize that doesn’t make me a transit planning expert, I don’t see where many more cuts can come from.

      Island Transit is straight-up money mismanagement. Nobody bothered to even look at the account statements, much less balance the books. Island violated the basic rule of operating an organization that handles money: two people sign off. I mean, Metro has even had full-scale audits, something that Island hasn’t had in, well, who knows?

      Can Metro be more efficient? Possibly, but when they’re cutting routes like the 47 as “duplicate service,” that tells me that not too much more fat (ahem, route 61) is left over. Every route is somebody’s “favorite.” Did Metro essentially hand the debit card to a single employee and tell that person to “go at it?” No.

      1. Indeed lakecityrider & Bob.

        Before this discussion goes too far south, I want to point out I made a point of King County Metro that has genuine needs & problems not of its own making because if I were deciding transit grants – I’d be wary of giving Island Transit another penny of grant money until the hard questions above are answered.

        If the State Auditor’s Office finds one sniff of noncompliance with grants… expect an implosion of one quarter of Island Transit, quite possibly more.

      2. Lakecity,

        You are right in that they are two different situations. However, and although it wasn’t posted that way on the website, I was replying to John, who said that, King County needs to make CUTS to PRESERVE service. Making cuts to preserve is not preserving anything, it’s cutting. Making cuts now to avoid making possible and uncertain cuts later doesn’t change that fact, it just makes people worse off.

        I’m not accusing Metro of the same mismanagement that appeared to be going on at Island Transit, but it’s unfair to say that Metro has “preserved service” simply through finding efficiency and raising fares. The taxpayers played a huge role in keeping buses on the road, even though Metro promised over 1.2 million hours of new service with prior tax increases but only delivered about a third.

        It is also unfair to say that KCM “gutted” the capital budget, when they are hitting record-breaking spending levels on capital expenditures; over $300 million this year alone.

    2. Metro’s Feb 2015 revision 2 proposal was published today. I expect there will be an STB article on it in a few days. Overall the cuts are slightly less severe than revision 1; that’s the rebounding economy effect. But it’s not rebounding enough to eliminate all unwarranted cuts (service ending early, bad restructures). Most routes seem to be better off than revision 1, but a few may be worse off (I’m waiting for STB’s Metro experts to confirm my hunch on that).

      Metro was right to preserve the level of service during the temporary funding (although it should have pushed good restructures harder during it). The temporary funding was supposed to be followed by long-term funding, but that died in the failed transportation package. But now that the revenue really is going away imminently, Metro needs to cut service to match the ongoing revenue.

    3. Also remember that some of Metro’s expenses are inescapably going up, the way the price of food exceeeds inflation. (1) The rising population and increasing ridership puts ever-increasing demand on capacity. (2) Medical insurance rises faster than inflation. (3) Fuel prices and spare parts are at a volatile but long-term increase.

      If transit were a luxury like Kenmore Air, we could gradually decline service to match rising costs. But it’s not; it’s a basic necessary feature of any well-functioning city. So revenue has to trend upward to keep capacity at some good level relative to ridership and mobility goals. It’s the same way with food prices at the supermarket, except that food prices go up without you getting a vote on them. But you can’t not buy food or you’d starve. So the only choice is to accept a gradually declining standard of living, and to focus on the real cause of this: the diversion of money from the middle class to the rich through tax cuts since the 1970s, the marriage of real estate to Wall Street financing, the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, the weakening of uniions, and the Eyman/tea party denial of what it takes to run a state or city. There may be some loose spending or redundant routes at the margins, but that is not the primary problem, at least not in King, Snohomish, or Pierce Counties.

      1. Mike, good points early on but you are veering well into off topic territory….

        I do share your view we have serious socio-economic problems in this nation, but this isn’t the place to discuss them.

        Thanks in advance. Others would just delete/censor, I don’t without a warning to the wise.

  4. It would be best if Washington State would let Camano Island be its own county and turn Whidbey Island over to Skagit County for reasons mostly irrelevant to STB. Or at least Island Transit to Skagit Transit if things are as bad as I read, see and hear

    There are certain things that are best handled with economy of scale, and it sure seems to me like this is one thing where it would make a lot of sense for Island Transit and Skagit Transit to be a single united agency. Among other things, some of the formula based grants from the Federal Transit Administration require a certain number of spare vehicles to handle breakdowns. If you have one bus, you wind up having to have two buses. If you have 10 buses, you wind up having to have 11 buses. The cost of that spare vehicle fleet goes down quite a bit for the first few increments of size increase. It’s not like Skagit Transit is some huge cumbersome bureaucracy with 5,000 buses and several hundred bus routes.

    Dividing services by county sometimes makes sense, but in this case it really would be best as a joint agency because there are so many services that link.

    The other thing might be that with so many intermediate points in so many different counties, that maybe it is time to use the Willamette Valley Cascades model? There are now some 9 round trips available from the Amtrak web site: two are Cascades trains, one is the Coast Starlight, and the rest are all companion bus trips. This is in addition to BoltBus, Greyhound, and HUT Airporter. I have taken the Skagit Transit connector out of Everett a couple of times, and each time there were a fair number of people that were really worried about getting their connection to points north on Whatcom Transit. The whole thing really operates as a single multi-county corridor.

    1. I should have said, there are 9 round trips in the Willamette Valley, to be clear. These are services that would be similar to the Amtrak Thruway bus service between King Street Station and Bellingham, if that service were operated a bit more frequently.

    2. Glenn, I get your concept no worries.

      I am a big advocate of merging transit agencies so that instead of fighting over service area, we have one network that works. One network with the same need for spare vehicles, common spare parts, bulk purchasing and able to keep labor costs under control for instance. Ideally by merging Island Transit & Skagit Transit, we’d have a seamless network for Camano, Whidbey & Skagit. Perhaps Whatcom might want to join at some point…

      Would it be best to have Olympia create one transit agency for all of Washington State? No. Not just due to political climate but also because the policies that are good for Seattle can be harmful to Skagit and vice versa.

      Am I cheering for a bankruptcy to make this so? No.

      Nor am I ready to answer the fare free issues here, getting there though.

      1. i wouldn’t want to see a single agency for the state handle all the local services either. However, Everett to Bellingham is really more of a multi-county corridor. Making more through bus service available between the major cores, similar to the Willamette Valley buses funded by ODOT, might make sense. ODOT doesn’t operate the local city services either, but it does provide that connector service between them (plus an agency or two provides additional services).

        Considering that a decent portion of this might wind up getting funded by state grants anyway, it might make sense for a single bus to make that trip from Everett to Bellingham.

  5. To me, the bottom line in this mess is that the Island Transit Board of Directors didn’t do the job that any BOD is supposed to do: oversee the budget and finances of the organization. Were they corrupt? I don’t think so. Were they negligent or ignorant? Probably, (but not criminally negligent). Is the state culpable also? Probably. If the state is handing out grants to small community agencies, there need to be requirements that the money is spent responsibly and that standardized financial reports are produced so that a competent BOD can oversee the financial performance of the agency and so that an outside agency can audit the agency.

    It’s too bad that this mess wasn’t exposed earlier. Island Transit is a small agency, with a very small budget and this problem should have been easy to spot if the BOD had understood its responsibilities and the state had set financial reporting standards. The fact that the BOD remained oblivious to the mis-use of funds for such a long period of time is the problem.

  6. What’s the impact on Skagit Transit and the Tri-County Connectors again? The meltdown is in Island County, but the connectors are cut due a state oversight in drafting its own law? How does this impact the Everett to Mt Vernon connector in particular?

    1. Mike;

      The Tri-County Connectors are having to now be run partially by Skagit Transit which goes out to March’s Point, then Island Transit picks up the rest of the link to Oak Harbor. This part of the connectors is changed due to the fiscal mismanagement by Island Transit.

      The state did not fund the Camano to Everett connector, so that’s been cut away. It doesn’t help when Island Transit has no reserves.

      The Everett to MV Connector is not impacted, but Skagit Transit may have to run that with its own reserves. Which it has agreed to do publicly.

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