It’s a happier day at Coast RTA as Horry County Councilmen appear to have agreed Tuesday to terms in a 2015 funding agreement with the embattled transit that’s been under state and local scrutiny for about a year.
The agreement, which needs approval next week by the Coast RTA board, assures the transit will receive quarterly payments from the county that add up to more than $1 million for the year, as long as the agency abides by terms of the agreement. Those terms include more accountability to the council, allowing the council to approve the employment contract when it finds a new general manager, a requirement that Coast update a 2010 transportation development plan and that a forensic audit performed on the agency.
Hugs and handshakes were abundant in the area outside council chambers after the vote by Coast technicians, administrative staff members and board members as many knew how Coast executives, like Julie Norton-Dew, interim general manager, struggled to ensure routes would not be cut by July, the first of Coast two busiest months.
“It’s a sigh of relief,” Norton-Dew said. “I am so excited that we were able to work this out with Horry County.”
Coast operates on about a $5 million budget receiving nearly $3 million in federal funds, about half a million dollars each from Myrtle Beach and South Carolina and more than $1 million from Horry County, Georgetown County and Conway.
It had to work from an austerity budget at the start of 2014 because Horry County Councilmen did not feel it should pay the transit its fourth-quarter payment claiming former Coast CEO Myers Rollins did not make a serious effort to increase the number of Horry County representatives on the Coast RTA board.
Norton-Dew, who was the chief financial officer for Coast at the time, said the thought of having another austerity budget crossed her mind.
“I knew that we could run the organization with the other funding sources, but it would have been very devastating to everyone,” Norton-Dew said. “It would have been devastating to the current staff. It would have been devastating to any potential staff that we want to bring on board. But most of all, it would have been devastating to our riders because service would definitely have been cut in a lot of the major corridors.”
Last year, the S.C. Department of Transportation labeled the transit “at-risk” and pulled the plug on a $1 million grant it awarded Coast nine years prior for a bus shelter program that never came to fruition. It also is requiring Coast to pay back more than $324,000 for the canceled program. The failed bus shelter program prompted the county to form a committee to examine where blame fell for the program, and eventually cost Rollins his job in April.
Mickey James, a Coast board member, was passionate last week during Coast’s two-hour meeting, saying the initial funding agreement proposed was full of “intimidation tactics” tied to the funding. James’ tone was different Tuesday as the county and transit seemed to meet an amicable agreement.
“We intend to work with Council the best we know how to make things better,” James said.
The Coast board still must vote on the agreement next Tuesday, but Coast officials did not think there would be a problem getting it approved.
Incorporating the airport shuttle in an existing route and possibly reinstating the Myrtle Beach Express, which is the free route from Broadway at the Beach to Ocean Boulevard hotels, are some of the changes the Coast board will be looking at for 2015.
“We are going to be looking at all of our services and try to make them the most efficient possible,” Norton-Dew said.
Council spent an hour talking about whether to approve the revised agreement, which several of them received at 3 p.m. Tuesday, defer it to a future meeting or deny funding Coast.
A motion to defer voting on the funding agreement split the council 6-6. The move would have forced Coast to create a temporary, or austerity, budget entering into July. The council then voted 8-4 to approve the funding agreement with Councilmen Jody Prince, Brent Schulz, Al Allen and Paul Price voting against approving the agreement. Price requested more time to review the changes and Prince and Allen were vocal about their opposition to funding the transit.
Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said he has seen progress in the relationship between the county and Coast.
“I think we’ve made unprecedented steps that have never been made before regarding the accountability of Coast RTA,” Lazarus said. “I think Coast RTA has made some unprecedented steps that they have made as of recent.
“I think it’s a new day... I think it’s time that we re-write history... Coast RTA, you have an opportunity before you. You have an opportunity to shine.”