Worth the money?

Verich's job performance being questioned

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Michael Verich talks about senior transportation in Trumbull County.

The job performance of a man who holds two taxpayer-funded positions in Trumbull County is being placed under a microscope by some of the officials who put him in the posts.

Michael Verich is the consultant on state issues for Trumbull County’s three commissioners and mobility manager for the Trumbull County Transit Board, which oversees a countywide transportation system. Taxpayers have paid him more than $250,000 for those roles.

One of those commissioners wants to see more accountability from Verich and for him to maintain a more detailed work log.

Another wants Verich to spend more time on making the transit system better for users.

There’s also a call from a member of the board that employs Verich as mobility manager to clearly define his role in that position.

Conduit to Columbus

Verich was appointed in 2012 to a six-month, $12,000 contract to be the liaison in the state capital for commissioners, who have renewed the agreement every six months since. During that period, he has been paid $144,000.

Most of the invoices he submitted in 2017 show he attended one to three meetings per month, participated in a handful of phone calls, scheduled one or two meetings and spoke with commissioners.

Many of the meetings and calls he makes for the transit board appear on bills to the county, details Verich said he includes to keep commissioners apprised of all of his activity, though some months the majority of the work he lists is related to the transit system.

“When I do my invoices to the county, they need to know everything I’m doing … They are involved in the transit board, the commissioners are, as they are with everything else I do, because I represent the county on all of these issues. There is a lot of overlap work, but the transit board is more narrow. When I represent the county, it is on a much broader spectrum, especially with funding issues,” Verich said.

Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa said he doesn’t doubt Verich, but his reports lack detail and there needs to be more accountability.

“We are at a point where we have to look at every contract and every dollar being spent and decide, are we getting the most bang for the buck? We need to justify these positions and contracts, to see what they are producing for the county, to see what they are bringing to the table. (Verich’s) reports need to be clear and detail oriented. I have gone over this with him,” Cantalamessa said. “I want to see a more elaborate documentation process.”

Verich said he would start providing more details in his invoices. “I’ve done that in the past — I’ve just kind of got away from that. But I can do that again, I’d be happy to,” Verich said.

Verich said Trumbull County has benefited from his work, citing projects from the last few years.

“I helped get $10 million in USDA funding for the Kinsman sewer line. We got new doors at the juvenile justice center and money for the state park. And now I’m working to get projects into the 2018 capital improvements bill for riverfront improvements by the amphitheater in Warren, for the Robins Theater Warren, and funding for Inspiring Minds in Warren,” Verich said.

Commissioner Frank Fuda said many people worked on securing money for those projects, and Verich was “helpful during some of our most stressful county projects.”

“But lately, I am not real comfortable with what he is doing with all of the transit stuff,” Fuda said.

Mobility manager

“He is not doing what a mobility manager should be doing,” said Mark Hess, the transit system’s former administrator who retired at the end of 2017.

Said Verich, “I disagree with that. I worked very hard to get legislation passed so we could expand our coordinated responses.”

The job of mobility manager is to keep close contact with all transit providers in a tri-county area and to facilitate trips for people with alternative transit providers when their main provider cannot give the ride, said Hess, who has agreed to help the board through March.

“If the provider — Community Bus Services here — can’t do the trip, instead of saying ‘no,’ the mobility manager’s responsibility is to find someone who can do the ride. That is what a mobility manager should be doing. And that is not what Michael is doing,” Hess said.

But Verich said coordinating those types of relationships takes time. This month, he said, he made phone calls to a Warren taxi service and a Youngstown transportation provider to start negotiating a partnership after consulting with members of the transit board and two of the commissioners.

“It is frustrating how slowly things move. But we are in talks to bring in other subcontractors to be a part of a network of service providers so we can provide even faster, expedited service. We are going to make it happen. It isn’t an easy thing to accomplish. But step by step we are moving in the right direction,” Verich said.

Transit board Chairman Robert Faulkner and member Marlin Palich said the board is satisfied with what Verich has done as mobility manager.

Verich’s transit board monthly reports for 2017 mostly contain the same blocks of text month-to-month with some minor occasional changes, including a new phone call or meeting.

Also, the invoices show little has come to fruition on the mobility management projects Verich reported working on.

His contract with the transit board now pays him $3,000 per month — double his starting rate when he was hired in September 2014. He’s earned about $99,000 from the board.

A project of Verich’s now, said Faulkner and Palich, is to work with partners to provide free transportation to people in Warren’s food deserts to grocery stores. If it happens, they said, it could increase ridership numbers while providing a much needed service.

Disputed projects

Verich said in January he met with people in Columbus to land a compressed natural gas filling station in Trumbull County. However, officials with the Trumbull County Engineer’s Office who are working on the project said Verich was not involved.

The project was listed on all of Verich’s 2017 mobility manager reports.

He also lists on every 2017 report an effort to coordinate cross county transportation services in Mahoning County. However, Jim Ferraro, executive director of the Western Reserve Transit Authority, said the two have never spoken.

Verich said he worked on the CNG project from a different angle than the engineer’s office, so they probably weren’t aware of the meetings he was holding in Columbus on the topic.

Job description

Transit board member Carl Clemmons said he wants the board to adopt a job description with specific duties for Verich.

“He needs to answer to someone. And the board needs to hold him accountable. The board and the transit administrator, not the contractor, should be telling him what to do, and they should be basing that on what the industry standards are,” Clemmons said. “He should concentrate on the problems of mobility management, working on the problems that are happening now, not starting new things before we fix the basics. The way he is doing business now keeps the board’s money in the hands of the contractor, but the system needs other providers in order to fully respond to the demands of the public who need the system.”

The job description given to Verich when he was hired states he is responsible for preparing board agendas, maintaining records and files, recording all information in each meeting, grant management, procurement management, compliance assurance, intergovernmental agreements, budget development and management, representing the board with other agencies and making certain reports to the Federal Transit Authority.

But when a full-time transit administrator was hired in 2015, the same month Verich’s pay was doubled, the administrator took on many of the responsibilities included in Verich’s job description. He does not prepare board agendas, keep the files or take meeting minutes.

The hiring of a fiscal officer by the board eliminated more of Verich’s original duties.

After the change, there was no new mobility manager job description, but a 2016 resolution states Verich has been selected to serve as mobility manager to “perform the duties necessary to the board’s provision of mobility management.”

Faulkner said Verich knows what work to do based on communication with board members and discussions held after a full-time administrator and fiscal officer were hired.

“As stated in my contract with the board, they are only interested in results and satisfactory performances by me,” Verich said. “As you heard, they are satisfied, indeed.”

JFS takeover

Verich’s recent focus has been on bringing transportation services offered by Trumbull County Job and Family Services under the umbrella of the transit board.

Verich said Cantalamessa and Commissioner Dan Polivka are supportive of the JFS transition. Fuda, Verich said, “flip-flopped” his support, throwing a wrench into the project’s progress after he successfully lobbied to get the law in Columbus changed to allow the plan to go through.

Hess said a plan done in 2016 for the board that examines ways to coordinate the different services locally recommended against trying to bring JFS into the fold of the transit board. Instead, the report recommended the board concentrate on improving relationships with, not taking over, other transit providers in Trumbull, Mahoning and Ashtabula counties.

“Hess has been working against us on this, as has one of the commissioners, but I am confident the new administrator will take it on and this will help things move faster and more efficiently,” Verich said.

Fuda said he is concerned Verich is too close to the contractor that provides rides for the county on behalf of the board and doesn’t concentrate enough on improving the system for riders and getting down the cost for taxpayers.

During a site visit with the FTA, Hess said representatives from the federal agency were concerned about the relationship between Verich and Community Bus Service president Terry Thomas. It appears Thomas has been preparing Verich’s reports and the agendas for the board’s meeting — which would be inappropriate, Hess said.

Verich said he uses the bus service’s offices to work on his reports and might get some assistance, but he does the work on his own.