Luzerne County Council Chairman Rick Morelli has asked council to use its home rule investigative powers for the first time to examine the county’s past contributions to the county Transportation Authority.
The request followed an announcement the state is withholding $3.16 million in funding to the authority, which provides public bus and van service, due to years of inflated senior citizen ridership counts.
The authority operates independently, but council appoints the authority’s nine governing board members and provides a local match for the authority to secure state funding.
The county’s home rule charter gives council authority to study, audit and investigate matters “it determines are in the best interests of the county.”
Council has the power to administer oaths and issue subpoenas and can compel witnesses to attend meetings and produce documents and other evidence.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck had proposed the idea of using these powers to examine the authority in May, in part after Councilman Edward Brominski publicly raised allegations about “ghost riders,” but council members did not act at that time.
Morelli said he will request a motion invoking council’s investigatory powers at a Feb. 12 special council meeting scheduled to vote on budget amendments. The state penalty is based on inflated ridership counts dating back to 2005.
“I think that all funding to LCTA from 2005 through the present must be closely reviewed,” Morelli wrote.
County Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri said he has requested a report on county contributions to the authority during this period and will present the information to the county manager and council.
Brominski’s suggestion to cut the authority’s allocation from $500,000 to $200,000 is among eight proposed 2014 county budget amendments to be discussed at a public hearing Wednesday night.
The authority has a $7 million reserve that will be tapped so its routes and staff of 145 can continue operating while state funding is withheld.
Brominski has repeatedly questioned why the authority hasn’t offered the county relief from its contribution.
“If you have a $7 million surplus and Luzerne County is in dire straits financially, don’t you think in all good conscience they would say they don’t need our money this year?” Brominski said. “That would be the right and moral thing to do.”
Councilman Stephen A. Urban has asked the same question for years because the authority has a fund reserve while the county has none.
Authority officials have told county officials state funding will be lost if the county fails to provide a mandated 15-percent match. Authority Executive Director Stanley Strelish and several authority employees attended Tuesday’s council meeting to say the reduction would force the agency to close its doors, jeopardizing services to disabled veterans and minimum-wage job holders who rely on public transportation.
But state transportation department spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said Friday the authority’s reserve can be counted as a local match if the funds came from the county.
Strelish estimated $300,000 to $400,000 of the reserve is from county funds. He said Friday he has been contemplating the option of using this money to reduce the county’s 2014 payment and will propose it at Wednesday’s budget hearing.
“Maybe we can work something out with the county to lessen the burden they’re facing. But if they deplete the entire amount in the reserve, they’d have to come up with the full amount the following year,” Strelish said.
Kirkpatrick said the 15-percent local match is mandated by Act 44, though Luzerne County and others have been permitted to advance toward the 15-percent over time without a loss in state funding. He stressed reserve funding that came from the state cannot be used as a local match.
Strelish, who has denied any knowledge of or involvement in ridership miscounts, said he developed the reserve through efficiencies so money would be available for emergencies, potential expanded services or other operating needs. The money can’t be used for capital projects, such as the purchase of buses, he said.
The state transportation department made a presentation to authorities across the state in October indicating misstated ridership counts may be an issue in other public transportation systems outside Luzerne County.
“We’re not alone,” said one authority representative who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Kirkpatrick declined comment on potential problems in other transportation systems.
The ridership controversy has fueled discussion among county officials about other changes.
Replace LCTA members
Brominski is reviving his proposal to replace some sitting authority members, though authority members have said they do not believe council has legal authority to remove active board members before their terms expire.
Morelli also said he wants to explore merging the county authority with Lackawanna County’s transportation system and possibly Hazleton’s.
A joint venture could lead to more efficiencies and funding opportunities and speed up options to enhance services, including a proposal for a passenger rail system between the Hazleton area and Scranton, he said.