Horry County Council ponders audit requirement for Coast RTA before funding; may force cuts

CCU students wait to board a Coast RTA bus. The Sun News Photo by Steve Jessmore sjessmore@thesunnews.com
CCU students wait to board a Coast RTA bus. The Sun News Photo by Steve Jessmore sjessmore@thesunnews.com The Sun News

CONWAY Horry County Council voted Tuesday to require Coast RTA to enter a funding agreement that may require them to produce an audit before it will agree to its $1 million commitment for fiscal year 2015.

That audit, however, could force the transit to announce route cuts as early as next week because of how long an audit would take to produce.

The vote was part of the council’s overall vote on the second reading of its budget, which begins July 1. Coast RTA’s budget also begins July 1, and it receives a little more than $1 million annually from the county for its more than $5 million budget. Councilmen voted 8-4 to support passing the budget, which may include the requirement for the audit. Councilmen who voted against the second reading of the budget were Jody Prince, Gary Loftus, Marion Foxworth and Paul Price.

Coast RTA has an annual audit that begins in October and is presented in January. If this audit is a stipulation and were to take that long, it means Coast’s funding would not be considered until January, which is six months after its fiscal year begins and right through the heart of its busy July and August months.

“We [would] have to cut service and we will have to announce it next week,” said Julie Norton-Dew, interim general manager of Coast, who was not at the meeting. The public has to have a 30-day notice. We cannot run service without funding. The audit will not be complete until January.”

The audit is one thing the county is considering as a way of having more checks and balances over the money it issues, said Lisa Bourcier, spokeswoman for the county.

Council continued with its vote despite the concerns of Councilman Bob Grabowski had about the audit requirement.

“I think the contract idea with Coast is a great idea. We’ve got to have it, we’ve got to have the oversight. But their funding is so tight right now, that I think if we start withholding funding... I think that we should keep up with the payments. The only ones that we’ll be hurting if we start withholding the money is going to be the people riding the buses, and that’s what concerns me.”

Coast RTA gets funding from the county, Georgetown County, Conway and Myrtle Beach. Each year in the spring, the county re-evaluates its expenses during its budgeting process.

Earlier this year, the transit was under scrutiny by the S.C. Department of Transportation and county officials after the state pulled the plug on a $1 million grant for bus shelters and signs that was awarded nearly nine years ago. That scrutiny led to the April firing of Myers Rollins, CEO and general manager of Coast during the years of the failed program.

Before Rollins was fired, County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus created a select committee to look at the botched program and report back to the council on who was to blame for the delay in the program and whether council should continue to fund the agency.

Councilman Marion Foxworth, who was appointed chairman of the committee, said the committee found that better oversight is needed on behalf of the Coast RTA board and Horry County, which led to a recommendation to reimburse Coast for expenses on a monthly basis. However, state and federal match funding for mass transportation is based on committed funds, so earlier this month, Norton-Dew asked that the county front its first quarter payment by July 1 to keep operations afloat during the transit’s busiest months, which are July and August.

Councilman Brent Schulz had a laundry list of questions he said his constituents have been asking him, including hearing about a leadership plan for the transit’s future, what changes are going to be made in the future for the transit and what business model changes will be made to make sure Coast is successful in the future.

Schulz said he’d like those questions and more answered before he votes to dedicate more than $1 million to the agency.

“I’m just very uncomfortable. I really am,” Schulz said. “You’re going to have to convince me.”

The council is expected to vote on the third reading of its 2015 budget, which includes this funding for Coast RTA, by June 30.