State Auditor’s Office Bellingham Team Member Jennifer Lofton Presenting to the State Senate Transportation Committee
Listened to today’s State Auditor’s Office (hereafter SAO for brevity) presentation to the State Senate – on TVW video and Island Transit Board Member Scott Dudley’s vimeo channel. The SAO Audit was partially on schedule, partially requested by the State Legislature in multiple letters included one co-signed by State Senators Barbara Bailey & Curtis King (The SAO response is here).
Most of the presentation was an executive summary of the full SAO Exit Conference with Island Transit as covered HERE with video.
One thing brought up was the artwork purchased by Island Transit for their opulent headquarters. However, the costs are eligible under the federal grants for up to 5% of the project costs.
As to the drawdown on the reserves and the inability of the SAO to speak up, the capital project of the new opulent HQ hid the reality of Island Transit’s books. Also the failures of the now-former Executive Director to inform the Board was brought up.
The SAO brought up the fact salaries were not approved by the board, certainly the Executive Director and the Island Transit Board did not review & act upon their contract with the Executive Director. SAO Director of Local Audit Kelly Collins also noted in response to a State Senator Marko Lilias – a STB reader – question about how aware was Island Transit Board of their requirements, the Island Transit Board was not exactly fulfilling the responsibilities of oversight of the executive director.
Most importantly, State Senator Curtis King (Republican) went into a good ole Senatorial stem-winder as Transportation Committee Chair. The State Senator – who I have not always liked – was bang-on when he mentioned that Island Transit receives “state funds” “that were given to Island Transit. When all of the sudden you find, uh, an agency that is, no longer has funds available on commitments it already has made, that they’re laying off a large number of their staff, that they’re having to sell bonds, all of those kind of things that Island Transit has gone through. It’s an indication something may be wrong and I think it’s prudent upon this body to make sure that the moneys that we give to any of these agencies are well spent and are spent in a manner in which they should have been spent. That was the purpose of the request for the audit.”
After thanking the SAO, Chairman King went on to say, “I’m very pleased to hear Island Transit addressing these concerns. I don’t like to see anybody go through this but seems to me there are some real concerns to be looked at here. I hope the Board that’s there now is addressing every one of these, it’s vitally important.”
Regarding the Tri-County Connectors linking Camano to Everett and Whidbey to Skagit, Senator King said: “That there was a [an] indication that this body no longer approved or had not provided funding for a connector service that had been funded and that all of us as legislators and particularly those from that district were accused of not having, you know, not making anybody aware of that and I want the public to know that, that decision was made by this body, in, I think in 2013, and that, that Island Transit was informed of that decision, that we would no longer be funding that tran, that connector, they were well aware of that and I want the public to know that. That they would have to apply for funds just like every other agency would have to apply which had not been the case before that.”
Those very assertions are backed up by a Representative Dave Hayes op-ed noting just this on the Tri-County Connectors. Representative Hayes also noted that the grants were supposed to be start-up funds not a permanent funding source and this Seattle Transit Blog will be investigating the situation… expect a report in early December. I agree with many who debated me back in 2013 such as a Transit Czar named Ben Schiendelman who wrote, “Right, so this money should really be competed for by similar rural areas across the state. … This particular set of routes had a sweetheart deal. It’s not actually equitable to all the OTHER places in the state that provide my food for this particular place to get special treatment.” He’s right, now that this isn’t last minute some measures could be taken.
I don’t want to put or ascribe ideas to Ben, he can clearly pund for himself but to me it’s time to put advertising on the buses. It’s time to have that difficult conversation about the logistics of putting a fare on Island Transit buses – or at least the Mount Vernon to Oak Harbor route. At least tomorrow’s Island Transit meeting which I will be requesting the audio of will raise these issues and others such as:
• Timeline for recruiting and hiring a permanent Executive Director
• Island Transit’s Strategic Recovery Plan
• Implementing Fare Charging for Ridership
• Advertising on Buses
• Potential Surplus List
• Employee Cost Cutting Incentive Program
To which I say: Should have discussed this before Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley started barnstorming Island County Town Councils with yours truly backing him up to get a new Island Transit Board. Happy it’s happening now. Hope the meeting goes smoothly.
Finally, to the SAO employees reading this, a sincere thanks to you for all you do. Most taxpayers do not have 8+ hours a day to pour over the books of our government and hold them to account. It’s what we pay you for, and we appreciate it.