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Last updated: June 07. 2014 10:13PM - 2202 Views
By - smocarsky@timesleader.com



Solicitor Joseph Blazosek talks to members of the media after a personnel meeting at the LCTA on Wednesday, when the agency's top two managers were charged by the state attorney general with theft and falsifying reports to the state.
Solicitor Joseph Blazosek talks to members of the media after a personnel meeting at the LCTA on Wednesday, when the agency's top two managers were charged by the state attorney general with theft and falsifying reports to the state.
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Most people in the Wyoming Valley, Back Mountain or Mountain Top areas have seen LCTA buses on area roadways over the years, but it was only over the last two that the agency itself has been put in the spotlight.
 
It was July 2012 when a Luzerne County councilman publicly accused LCTA management of having drivers inflate senior citizen passenger counts to boost state subsidies.
 
The accusation led to state investigations, and the so-called “ghost rider” scandal that has plagued the authority ever since. The agency's executive director and operations manager were arrested Wednesday and face multiple criminal charges.
 
Q. What is the LCTA?
A. The Luzerne County Transportation Authority is an independent governmental agency responsible for providing public bus service to urban areas in 31 municipalities in northern and central Luzerne County, as well as a Special Transportation Efforts Program (STEP) that provides shared rides in vans for approved disabled people.
 
Q. Where is it located?
A. The authority's offices and bus garage are located at 315 Northampton St., Kingston. The STEP program is run out of offices located at 2009 Wyoming Ave., Forty Fort.
 
Q. Who runs the authority?
A. An executive director, who oversees several department heads, runs the authority on a day-to-day basis and answers to a non-paid nine-person board of directors appointed by Luzerne County Council. The board members are Anthony Baldo, Art Bobbouine, Robert Chepalonis, Patrick Conway, Sid Halsor, Valerie Kepner, John Koch, Sean Robbins and Chairman Salvatore Licata. The Solicitor is Joseph Blazosek.
 
Q. Who works there?
A. The authority has a staff of about 100, including about 62 bus drivers and mechanics, who are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 164. The remainder consists of financial, technical and office personnel, dispatchers and van drivers for STEP.
 
Q. What's their pay like?
A. The union bus drivers are among the highest paid in the state. Thirty-two of the authority's 46 full-time bus drivers receive a top pay rate of $24.40 per hour. The authority's nonunion employees receive a wide range of salaries with the same wage increases as in the union contract. Executive Director Stanley Strelish's salary was $86,571 in 2013.
 
Q. How is it funded?
A. Transportation agencies in Pennsylvania receive most funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The governmental body that created an authority is required to provide a certain percentage of matching funds. Passenger fares comprise the remainder of funding. Free rides for senior citizens are funded with proceeds from the Pennsylvania Lottery.
 
Q. What does it cost to ride the bus these days?
A. The fare for one ride is $1.50. A transfer costs 40 cents. Thirty-one day passes and multiple-ride tickets are available at discount prices. Visit the authority website www.lctabus.com or call 570-BUS-TIME for rates, schedules and more information.
 
Q. Who was charged in the “ghost rider” investigation?
A. Strelish, 60, of Wilkes-Barre, faces 47 criminal counts, among them theft by deception, tampering with public records, unsworn falsification, false swearing and obstructing justice.
Operations Director Robb Henderson, 58, of Exeter, faces 27 counts. They include conspiring to tamper with public records, aiding the commission of a crime and conspiring to obstruct justice.
 
Q. Will there be a “ghost rider” trial?
A. Preliminary hearings for the two defendants are scheduled for 9 a.m. on July 14 in a Magisterial District Court in Dauphin County, at which time they will enter pleas of guilty or not guilty. If one or both plead not guilty, they can either waive the charges to Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas or a hearing will be held to determine if there is sufficient evidence to go to trial.
 
Q. Will Strelish and Henderson continue working until then?
A. The LCTA Personnel Committee met Wednesday to discuss options. Board member Patrick Conway told The Times Leader that the men are unofficially suspended based on a decision by the Personnel Committee, but the full authority board will likely meet at 5 p.m. Tuesday to decide what official action will be taken. In these kinds of cases, imposing a paid or unpaid suspension on an employee charged with a crime is typical.
 
Q. Why is it called the “ghost rider” scandal?
A. County Councilman Edward Brominski coined the phrase when he made public allegations that drivers were pushing a button on the fare box in their buses to record senior citizen passengers who no one else could see (because they weren't really there) — ghost riders, if you will.
 
Q. Why do drivers have to push a button for seniors?
A. Non-senior passengers pay cash fares or swipe a pass through the electronic fare box, which records their presence on the bus. Senior citizens ride for free and only have to show an identification card, so bus drivers must manually record senior citizens by pushing a button on the fare box.
 
Q. How much extra funding did the LCTA get because of the ghost riders?
A. PennDOT said the LCTA received about $3.1 million more than it was entitled to over seven years. The LCTA's state funding for the 2014-15 fiscal year was cut by that amount.
 
Q. Will the funding cut affect bus service?
A. Strelish has said the cut will not affect service because the authority has a $7 million reserve it can use to cover operating expenses.

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