Coast RTA examines Horry County’s proposed funding agreement; board member calls it ‘intimidation tactics’

On Tuesday, the Coast RTA Board of Directors dissected the proposed funding agreement it plans to enter with Horry County, and some staff members and board members were concerned with how much control Horry County wants of some of the transit’s actions.

The county provides the transit with $1.055 million annually, made in quarterly payments. That figure came from a non-binding 2010 referendum where more than 60 percent of voters advised the county to provide .06 of a mill to fund the transit. County officials opted to fund the transit at that rate.

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 former CEO Myers Rollins his job in April.

Coast is now trying to balance two things: adhering to federal requirements for a more permanent promise of local funding for the transit to receive matching federal funds, and satisfying the county’s desire to turn its annual contribution from an automatic payment to a reimbursable one.

Julie Norton-Dew, interim general manager, said federal guidelines require the transit to declare what monies it plans to receive for the federal government to commit to matching those funds. She said she spoke with federal mass transit officials who said Coast would have an option called deferred local match that could work with the county’s proposal, but the application process for that plan could take months.

“We need these federal funds to us in August,” Norton-Dew said. “That is the biggest concern. The local share is very important.”

Mickey James, a Coast board member, was fired up during the two-hour meeting, saying the funding agreement proposed was full of “intimidation tactics” tied to the funding.

“We can’t sit back and let the county run this organization,” James said. “It’s OK to have oversight, but when you have people who want to go beyond that oversight, then there’s a problem... It’s not their job to run Coast... If the county was concerned about Coast, they’d be willing to help us out.”

Other stipulations that hit a nerve with Coast’s administration or board members were requests for a transportation study to examine route efficiency, the hiring of a consultant to run the transit until a permanent general manager is found and the county appointing members to a search committee, along with Coast-appointed members, to find a new general manager.

“I think the County Council is stepping out of scope again,” James said. “Why does the county want to get involved in hiring a new leader?”

Horry County Councilman Marion Foxworth, who led a committee earlier this year to look at the failed bus shelter program, said he had a chance to read the proposed funding agreement closer and concurred with other council members who said parts of it were “over reaching.”

But, Foxworth said, the county can pull its funding if the transit does not want to oblige to its requests.

“There is no mandate to fund public transportation,” Foxworth said, adding the clock for both Coast and the county is ticking considering both budgets need to be passed by July 1. “We’re up against a calendar. We need to pass a budget by July 1 with or without Coast in it.”

Councilman Gary Loftus, who is also a member of the Coast board, said it all boils down to accountability of taxpayer money.

“The basic premise is oversight and that’s what we’re after,” Loftus said. “Understand we’re not your adversaries, we’re your partners.”

Coast will present its requested revisions to the County Council at council’s meeting Tuesday. The Coast board hopes to finalize the funding agreement by its June 25 meeting.

Bernie Silverman, chairman of the Coast board, said Coast has to keep in mind that the county is the largest local funding source, so there has to be some give and take in negotiations.

“You can be as tough as you want,” Silverman said. “You can throw the county out. But we have a mission to provide public transportation and the county plays a big role in that mission.”