KINGSTON — Bus service in Luzerne County won’t stop any time soon, but no one knows exactly how long it can continue without a vote on funding from county council.
The Luzerne County Transportation Authority board of directors on Wednesday tentatively adopted a $12.9 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year that relies heavily on millions of dollars in state subsidies.
But the state won’t release any funds to the beleaguered authority — or any transit agency, for that matter — unless there is a guaranteed local funding match. A state formula says Luzerne County must kick in $509,612 next fiscal year if the state Department of Transportation is to give the LCTA $5.1 million and funnel another $3.1 million in federal funding.
During the public comment that preceded the business portion of Wednesday’s meeting, Linda Slater, chairwoman of the grass roots Public Transportation Advisory Council, told the board she attended Monday’s Luzerne County Council meeting, and council tabled a resolution to approve the matching funds for the LCTA.
“Hazleton (Public Transit’s matching) funding was supposed to be voted upon and they couldn’t even get a motion for the matching funds for Hazleton. What does that mean for us?” Slater asked the board.
Board Chairman Sal Licata said one of the reasons for the board’s nearly two-hour closed-door executive session that delayed the 5 p.m. scheduled start of the meeting was so members of the LCTA administration could advise the board on possible options and make recommendations for a course of action.
“We have some options we’re looking into and we have some plans we’re going to put in place to make sure that in lieu of the funding, that we’re able to operate. But we’re only going to be able to operate for a certain amount of time,” Licata said.
After the meeting, Licata said the nearly $8 million surplus that the authority had earlier this year is diminishing because the state is withholding monthly funding allotments until $3.16 million in overpayments to the authority is paid off. Data was unavailable to determine exactly how long the surplus could last.
The $3.16 million penalty was assessed after the state investigated allegations that the authority had been inflating senior citizen passenger counts to receive higher state subsidies and determined the practice had been ongoing for about seven years.
The state Attorney General’s Office charged LCTA Executive Director Stanley Strelish and LCTA Fixed Route Operations Manager Robb Henderson with multiple counts of theft and conspiracy, respectively, earlier this month in connection with the allegations.
The investigation had become known as the “ghost rider scandal” because bus drivers were recording non-existent passengers, allegedly at Strelish’s direction.
Strelish had vehemently denied that he gave such orders since the accusations became public two years ago, but he has not commented publicly since his arrest. Strelish and Henderson are on unpaid administrative leave pending the outcome of the criminal cases. They have been allowed to exhaust their earned vacation, sick and personal days in the meantime.
Licata said after the meeting that members of the LCTA administration met with members of the county administration earlier this week and advised them of the need for county approval of matching funds. He doesn’t know why council tabled the vote for LCTA funding, nor did he know why no motion was made to vote on Hazleton Public Transit matching funds.
Based on reports from the council meeting, council members seemed unsure if they needed to fund the entire $509,612 or if the LCTA could use surplus funds previously received from the county.
Licata said the LCTA board and administration will work with council to provide whatever information they need in hopes of getting the issue resolved.
As for appointing an interim executive director in Strelish’s absence, Licata said the LCTA staff discussed priorities and determined that hiring a human resources director topped the list, resolving the budget issue came in second and appointing an interim executive director was third.
Licata said the board hasn’t even begun to discuss options for an interim executive director.
But the board on Wednesday did vote to hire Norman Gavlick, of Kingston, as the new human resources director at a salary of $50,000 to replace Renee Craig, who recently resigned to take a job closer to home.
The proposed budget had a $487,330.68 deficit, about $270,000 of which occurred in the Shared Ride program. The other $218,000 was in the fixed bus route system, and caused by the need to hire a full-time mechanic, a full-time compliance officer and six part-time “spotters” who will monitor pedestrian safety as buses back out of spaces at the intermodal transportation center.
LCTA Controller Mohammed Najib said the $218,000 can be taken from the LCTA’s surplus, which stood at approximately $6.7 million at the end of March.
John Alu, operations director for the Shared Ride Program, said the program has its own surplus of approximately $1 million to cover next year’s projected $270,000 shortfall.