Panel to ignore bid recommendation for senior levy

WARREN — After waiting for months for a recommendation from an advisory committee on how to proceed with transportation funding from the county’s senior levy, commissioners are expected to ignore the committee’s suggestion to put the money out to bid and hand it over to the county’s public system, but with some new “safeguards.”

The Trumbull County Senior Advisory Committee voted Wednesday to recommend Trumbull County commissioners go out to bid for $450,000 in transportation services for seniors, instead of giving it to the Trumbull County Transit Board, which uses the money not only to provide seniors with discounted rides, but also to leverage state and federal dollars to run a public transit system. Members of the committee expressed concern that the senior levy money should only be used on seniors, and funding the public transit system that way could be against the law. Many other transit systems in Ohio are funded with a dedicated source like a transit levy.

However, county commissioners have been appropriating senior levy funds for the county’s system since its inception in 2006, which is something Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa said speaks to the concept’s legality.

The senior levy money makes up the bulk of the local money the system uses to leverage grant funds. If the transit board had to bid on the senior levy money, the funds could not be used to leverage the money.

“We’ve gone through audits and reviews by the prosecutor’s office and reviews by the Federal Transit Administration, and no one has ever found an issue,” said Cantalamessa.

Members of the advisory council though wanted to wait until the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office finishes looking at their questions and produces a written opinion on whether it is proper for senior levy money to fund a transit system for the public.

Cantalamessa said he is confident it is proper, and while he doesn’t not want to pull such an important source of funding to the transit system, he does want to see more accountability.

New provisions have been inserted into a draft memorandum of understanding that commissioners are expected to vote on Wednesday. The MOU ties 2019 funding to the number of rides provided in 2018.

“If they don’t provide 20,000 rides for seniors, their funding will be cut by the percentage they missed the target by,” Cantalamessa said.

Commissioners are expected Wednesday to approve $425,000 in funding for the transit board. The board requested $600,000 — the figure it had to work with in 2017.

The proposed MOU has a new provision that gives the senior levy administrator, Diane Siskowic-Jurkovic, more authority to request materials from the transit board and its service provider to ensure they comply with levy laws, Cantalamessa said.

If the commissioners don’t fund the transit system, it could disappear and take tens of thousands of discounted rides away from the public, Commissioner Dan Polivka said.

“We aren’t going to kill the transit system. Our seniors are priority one, but there’s also 60,000 rides lost if the system goes down,” Polivka said.

And, the transit board’s service provider contract is going to come up for rebidding in the next year, Polivka said, so other businesses will have a chance to bid.

Siskowic-Jurkovic said she had hoped commissioners would wait until they received the legal opinions, but the advisory council is not a decision making body.

Complaints about the system from riders and concerns the money could be spent more efficiently with a variety of providers, were also factors in the board’s desire to seek more bids, Siskowic-Jurkovic said.

Cantalamessa said there are several ways he intends to hold the system more accountable and trusts the transit board will take the necessary steps to make improvements.

“We need to move forward, with more provisions to hold the provider accountable and by reaching benchmarks that will improve the service for seniors and the rest of the public,” Cantalamessa said.

Niki Frenchko, chair of the advisory council’s transportation subcommittee, said she is disappointed the commissioners are ignoring their recommendations.

“It sounds like they had their agenda already made up, before we even have the answers to our questions. It’s like they are playing games with our council, the members of which have spent a lot of time researching these issues, and the taxpayers’ money, because the public is under the impression their senior levy dollars are going to senior services, not a public transit system.,” Frenchko said.

The levy ballot language clearly states the tax must go to “providing or maintaining senior services or facilities” while the memorandum of understanding clearly states the money is going toward the “operation of the county’s transit system,” Frenchko said.