Oops, federal funding may not cover Island Transit gazebo bills

For critics of Island Transit, two gazebos have become a symbol of a boondoggle.

The two picturesque but seldom-used structures are reminders of the lavish spending on the new transit facility near Coupeville. Over-spending on the project was connected to a financial scandal that resulted in employee layoffs, route cuts and the ouster of the director last year.

Now it turns out that the agency may have to pay back as much as $140,000 of a federal grant that was spent on extras that didn’t qualify for federal taxpayer funds.

At the top of the list of items inappropriately purchased are the gazebos, though the structures account for just $7,000 of the alleged misspent money.

Ken Graska, the interim director, and Oak Harbor City Councilman Rick Almberg, the chairman of the transit board, said Friday that they hope to recoup some of the funds by selling the picturesque gazebos, noting they would be perfect complements to a wedding.

“We would be very interested in having a local winery purchase them,” Almberg said, adding that eBay may also be an option.

Graska said he and the new financial analyst have had to reconstruct budgets and other information related to the construction of the facility in the wake of a scathing audit, which identified possible misspent grant money, among other issues.

“It seems clear to me that there were things that were not eligible for the grant dollars but still were purchased,” he said.

Problems arose at the transit agency last year, under the watch of former director Martha Rose and the former finance director. Rose is under investigation by the Washington State Patrol, at the request of the county prosecutor.

Graska said the $140,000 figure for possible misspent grant dollars is a “rough estimate” and that the transit agency has until June 30 to respond to the federal government about the issue.

Refunding the money would put a significant dent in the agency’s tight budget, but money has been budgeted for the payback, he said.

In addition to the two gazebos, more than $20,000 of grant funds were used to purchase a tractor. The rest of the grant spending questioned by auditors consist of “in-kind staff labor that went over budget,” Graska said.

The gazebos were meant as shelters for smokers, though they weren’t part of the original architectural plans.

Nonetheless, he’s never seen anyone in either gazebo until Friday.

Ironically, Island Transit critic Gayle Zachaukirk may have been one of the first people to use one of the gazebos for its intended purpose. She lit up a cigarette before attending the board meeting Friday morning.

She said she would be in favor of selling the gazebos if the federal government decides that purchasing them violated the terms of the grant funding.

As for the tractor, Graska said it is a useful piece of equipment to have but not an absolute necessity. It’s used for mowing and has a front loader for moving dirt or snow.

Both he and Almberg said they would like to see it sold if a reasonable amount of money can be recovered. Likewise, Island County Commissioner Rick Hannold, also a member of the transit board, said he’s in favor of selling anything that’s excess.

Critics of Island Transit have also complained about other lavish features in the new facility, from fancy artwork to an even fancier kitchen. There have been no allegations, however, that money was misspent on any of these items.

Graska said the facility’s new exercise equipment is well used and important in ensuring that the drivers keep in good health. He said recent studies have raised concerns about bus drivers’ health due to the sedentary nature of their jobs.

As a result, he hopes to keep the fitness accoutrements intact.