The Coast RTA was given at least six months to seek support from the area’s legislative delegation to change the makeup of its board to add two more Horry County councilmembers.
But there has been little or no progress on that requirement, which triggered Horry County councilmen to stop payment of a fourth installment to the transit agency to the tune of $268,000, and that is leading transit officials to explore route cuts, staff reduction and eliminating part if its fleet to obtain a balanced $5 million budget for next year.
“It’s going to have a negative effect,” said The Coast CEO and General Manager Myers Rollins. “Apart from the issue of membership on the board, there’s a process I have to follow to approve a budget... As a practical matter, I have to create a budget that does not include those dollars.”
Rollins has about one week to present a balanced budget to the Federal Transit Administration. The budget, which will be talked about at The Coast’s monthly meeting Wednesday, will not include the $268,000 expected from the county, which will result in “cataclysmic consequences” including losing about 38 percent of its workforce, Rollins told the council.
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The Coast’s board is made up of nine members from communities as far north as Little River and as far south as Georgetown. Its $5 million budget is comprised of contributions from federal and state grants as well as local contributions from the county and Myrtle Beach. The county’s share -- slightly more than $1 million -- makes up the majority of local contributions, which has led councilmen to add two seats to the one it already has on the Coast board.
Changing the make up of the board requires a change in state law, which prompted Councilman Gary Loftus to ask Rollins to work with area legislators to change the law. If Rollins did so, the county would release the $268,000 fourth-quarter payment to the transit. Councilmen have said Rollins has not done that to date.
“All we were asking for, and I asked for in January, was a good faith effort on your part and the Coast RTA’s part to recommend to the legislative delegation... that there should be representation equal to where the money comes from,” Loftus said.
Rollins contends he had been in contact with Sen. Luke Rankin “for months,” though he had trouble remembering the senator’s name when questioned. He then commended Horry County Attorney Arrigo Carotti for his valiant, yet failed, effort to try to get this same issue passed two years ago. Carotti clarified he didn’t do more than check on the law for The Coast.
“If there is some other disincentive other than punishing our finances, I ask that we consider that,” Rollins told the council. “What I’m struggling with is the correlation between your expectation of us, to be great caretakers of public funds, and this composition of the board change.”
Contacted via email, Rankin said he was “not at all familiar w/ this request this legislative session or Mr. Rollins.” He said he supports mass transit, and recognize the need for a vibrant means of transportation.
“As a member of the Horry Delegation, I will work with the other local house and senate members to find a workable solution for their request,” Rankin wrote.
According to emails obtained by The Sun News, Barbara Blain-Olds, attorney for The Coast, and Paula Benson, senior staff attorney for the S.C. Senate Judiciary Committee, did communicate about the proposed changes to the board structure in emails exchanged between Jan. 6, 2012, and Jan. 9, 2012. Those exchanges include a carbon copy to Sen. Rankin’s email address.
Among the final emails during the exchange, Blain-Olds is advised by Rankin to contact the Municipal Association of South Carolina to move ahead with the proposal. Blain-Olds writes in the final email Jan. 9 that she is unsure what that means and vows to discuss the issue further with Sen. Rankin. The Sun News was not provided with any further correspondence between Blain-Olds and Sen. Rankin.
Rollins said the board plans to discuss its makeup, and any potential cuts to service when it meets on Wednesday.
In 2010, 62.5 percent of people who voted in Horry County said they would like to see county money to help fund The Coast, which is what gave Councilman Bob Grabowski difficulty in declining the funding for The Coast.
“I don’t see how we can withhold these funds,” Grabowski said. “The taxpayers wanted us, through referendum, to spend this money on public transportation, and I don’t see why we would even consider withholding these funds.”
Rollins said he has abided by the councils’ requests for monthly reports and has provided documentation and check receipts, as well as wage and salary information.
“We struggle with this one because it is out of our control,” Rollins said.
Lessons learned, routes lost
Loftus scoffed at Rollins’ comment that The Coast will lose 38 percent of its workforce if the money is not approved, and said he wants to see better communication between the council and the Coast.
“I just don’t see in any way, shape or form how this is going to affect your budget...” Loftus said. “What we’re trying to do is get your attention.”
Council chairman Mark Lazarus criticized Rollins for not knowing the extent the county attorney went for this issue and for not remembering that he spoke with Sen. Rankin.
“You’re disenfranchised from this county council,” Lazarus said to Rollins. “We’re going to fix that problem... We’re going to franchise you. We’re going to bring you in... and we’re going to understand better what’s going on.”
But until that happens, the area may see a loss of routes and a loss of services.
“In order for us to [understand what’s going on], we need a seat at the table,” Lazarus said. “We’re giving you the lion’s share of the funding.”