Coast RTA, Horry County mull funding agreement some call “overreaching”

Horry County Council is examining a new funding agreement proposal for Coast RTA that it will consider later this month, but some council members say some of what’s required of the transit goes too far.

Last month, County Council approved an amendment to its fiscal year 2015 budget, which begins July 1, that made Coast RTA’s allocated $1.055 million annually contingent upon entering a funding agreement. The turmoil, however, has been brewing for months after a failed bus shelter program prompted county officials to create a select committee to examine the nine-year-old shelter program, which netted few shelters throughout the county, a $324,000 reimbursement bill for Coast to the S.C. Department of Transportation and the firing of its former General Manager Myers Rollins.

County Attorney Arrigo Carotti, who drafted the proposal from notes and suggestions made by County Councilmen, said at Tuesday’s County Council meeting that some of the critical differences in the proposed funding agreement compared to the current one the county has with Coast include a restriction on disbursement of funds until the funding agreement is approved by County Council and by Coast RTA’s board. The proposal also states the county also will vote each quarter on whether and how to fund the transit depending on whether it followed the terms of the agreement. The proposed funding agreement states the second through fourth payments to Coast may be on a reimbursement basis.

The agreement also forces Coast to use part of the county’s contribution to the transit to pay for a study on efficiency of routes and a forensic audit the county wants performed.

The proposed agreement requires Coast to hire a consultant to serve as interim general manager until a permanent replacement is found. It also states the county will have three votes, as will Coast, in the hiring of a new general manager. The terms of the employment contract would have to be approved by County Council, which has not been done before.

Copies of all grant applications, as well as subsequent correspondence, will be forwarded to the county.

Council is expected to vote on the funding agreement on June 17.

Councilman Bob Grabowski commended Carotti for his thoroughness in the agreement, but said some of the terms went too far.

“This one here I think is to the point of being too thorough,” Grabowski said. “Horry County is not in the bus business. I don’t think we want to be in the bus business. I see this as very overreaching in certain areas.”

Councilman Harold Worley echoed Grabowski’s concerns.

“I just think we’re overreaching. These folks over there, they’re working on their problems, they realized they had some issues, and I thought, Mr. Chairman, that we decided we were going to go ahead and fund the $1.055 million and we would review after each quarter,” Worley said. “Now these folks don’t even know if they’re going to get the $263,750 each quarter because any seven of us could say no. That’s arbitrary. I really have a problem with that.”

Bernie Silverman, president of the Coast RTA board of directors, said he is ready to the new requirements Coast and Horry County agree upon.

“I take responsibility for a new level of accountability and transparency at Coast,” Silverman said. “The Coast board is willing to work to make Coast a respected member of this county.”

Also last month, Councilman Brent Schulz asked Coast to come back to Council with answers to such questions as whether the transit’s business model will be changing, if Coast will hire a consultant, whether the county can have oversight of Coast’s grants and making the routes more efficient.

Julie Norton-Dew, interim general manager of Coast, said a formal business plan is being developed and will be completed within a week. The plan, she said, will define specific actions Coast will make to move into its next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“The goals at this time are to increase accountability, reduce liability, increase revenues, review staff needs and to define critical projects,” Norton-Dew said.

She said plans are in the works to align the airport routes, that serve the south and north end hotels along Ocean Boulevard, with other routes instead of dedicating two buses 12 hours a day to the routes. She said some changes may include increasing the frequency of the Conway to Myrtle Beach routes, which averages about 100,000 passengers annually.

“In the short term, the focus will change from service expansion to analyzing the current service level and making adjustments to increase efficiency and maximize returns while meeting the needs of the community,” Norton-Dew said. “Coast RTA plans to initiate a peer review through National Public Transportation Resources. This peer review will include looking at efficiency of the routes, service levels, maintenance, safety programs and security, and will be performed by professionals from other transit agencies. In July, the Federal Transit Administration will perform a tri-annual review of Coast RTA.”

Norton-Dew said the tri-annual review is one of the FTA’s management tools for examining grantee performance, and helps provide technical assistance.

Councilman Worley said he would like the administration committee to discuss the terms of the funding agreement at its meeting Friday.

“This is a lot,” Worley said. “I’m really uncomfortable with this. I’m just thinking these folks are getting more bad publicity. Do they have problems? Sure they have problems, but I’ve got problems at [my business], too.”

Council Chairman Mark Lazarus dismissed the idea of the administration committee talking about the funding agreement before councilmen discuss it later this month. He said Coast RTA has had a troubled past, including the S.C. Department of Transportation listing the transit as an “at risk” company more than three years ago.

“This isn’t the first time this bus system has been in trouble. They’ve been in trouble a lot of times and I think it’s going to take this far reaching, if that’s what you’re going to call it, approach in order to help them to survive, first of all, and to move forward. It’s not to say that somewhere down in the future, as they progress, where some of these, in the next budget cycle, come off. I think, in the situation where we are and where we found discrepancies and we found they were at risk by the government, I think we have council members who would like to see to continue the bus service, but we have to make sure it’s viable. And lastly, we, as council members, are putting at risk $1.055 million of taxpayer’s money. I don’t think it’s overreaching at all to ask for these things.”