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Riders demand answers at Island Transit meeting
Where did the money go and what is Island Transit going to do about it?
This was the main question repeated by an angry and confused room full of people at the Island Transit board meeting Friday in the wake of financial mismanagement, service reductions and staffing cuts.
“You folks had a pile of money and over a period of time it was gone,” said one resident. “Why are you still here pretending to manage?”
Friday, the board approved its state-required Six-Year Transit Development Plan before going into its regular meeting. Board chairman Bob Clay appeared to struggle to maintain traditional meeting procedure as questions and answers flew between residents and board members.
Several of those attending said the board’s six-year plan was unrealistic given their current financial situation.
It was unveiled in June that Island Transit had completely depleted its reserves after the completion of its new state-of-the art transit hub and didn’t have enough money to pay its bills. Several routes were cut or limited and 22 staffers were let go.
“I find this to be extremely optimistic,” said Transit Board member Jim Campbell of the six-year plan. “Something can go to hell in a handbasket real fast. We don’t have a plan if it fails.”
Executive Director Martha Rose assured the board and residents that federal and state grants would help the agency stabilize, but many voiced skepticism that her plan would not pan out.
Rose said that grant money that will start to materialize in 2015 will “go a long way in getting us back on track.”
However, at least one grant will not be applied for until November and is not completely guaranteed, according to Rose.
“What are the chances for actually getting (the grants)?” asked Gary Ray. “Is this a pipe dream or is it realistic?”
“It’s very realistic,” Rose answered.
Board member Jim Sundberg seconded Rose’s optimism, stating that it’s possible that in watching the budget, Island Transit could be in better shape than what is currently projected.
“If we are more successful than we thought, we may be able to restore services sooner than we thought,” Sundberg said.
Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she wanted to reopen the agency’s service cut decisions because the board was not allowed to provide direction.
Price Johnson said the unincorporated parts of South Whidbey, which lies within her district, are “carrying the brunt” of the service cuts.
And with the school year starting, Price Johnson said that South Whidbey families rely on bus services for after-school programs.
“I’m not comfortable about this,” Price Johnson said. “I don’t believe that we as a board have had those discussions on a policy level.”
Restoring any cuts to paratransit service for the disabled is at the top of the agency’s priorities, Rose said, and that she is working one-on-one with clients to make sure they get to their critical appointments.
“We want them to get their services, and we’re bending as far back as we can,” Rose said.
Some board members said they were confused by the financial documents placed before them during the meeting.
“We’re getting so many different forms in so many different formats,” Clay said. “It’s all confusing. I want something that doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out. That’s been part of the problem.”
Sundberg agreed that the board needed to focus on “summarizing data that makes it more clear for us and the public.”
Clay explained that while the board still does not have a clear picture of what happened, they are in the process of finding out.
“I don’t think the board is 100 percent aware of what’s going on,” Clay said. “The board was not made aware of the irregularities that have been uncovered. For a period of time, our expenses exceeded our revenue. How that was done, we don’t know.”
Rose maintained that she was “not aware” of the financial problems.
Rose fired former finance manger Barbara Savary after the financial problems came to light. Sandra Kuykendall, who preceded Savary in the role, returned recently to Island Transit.
“The whole budget process was misstated to the board and Martha,” Kuykendall said. “They were under an assumption that was not true.”
The state audit started last week and will continue for approximately 30 days, Clay said. He added that at the completion of the state audit, he would like the board to consider a forensic audit as well.
The board’s newest appointed member, Island County Commissioner Aubrey Vaughan, was absent.