FTA threatens transit funding

WARREN — The Federal Transit Administration is giving the Trumbull County Transit Board until Monday to answer compliance questions lingering from years ago and numerous other questions, or the board could lose all, or part of its federal funding, according to a letter sent to the board chairman.

“The FTA is committed to helping TCTB implement a compliant and effective transit program to better serve the residents in the city of Warren and its surrounding areas, but must receive the following information to ensure the federal investment in TCTB is protected,” states the April 1 letter to board chairman Robert Faulkner from Kelley Brookins, regional administrator of FTA Region V.

Faulkner said he was surprised by the letter because he thought everything the FTA needed already was turned over and he doesn’t believe the board is in danger of losing federal funding. The amount varies, but the board has received around $900,000 to $1 million in federal funds in the last few years.

“We are working to get everything they want. I was under the impression that all that stuff they are asking for, we already sent it. It is a lot, some 17 or so things, but it is information we have in reports, stuff that can be pulled from somewhere,” Faulkner said.

Faulkner said he isn’t worried.

“I don’t think this will jeopardize us,” he said.

There was “an alarmingly high” number of findings — 22 of them — in the board’s last FTA triennial review in March 2016, the letter states. And while the FTA has offered help numerous times, the board has not come into compliance in all areas, and new FTA concerns about financial controls have surfaced, the letter states.

The original deficiencies were in board programs and policies for maintenance, procurement, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, disadvantages business enterprise requirements, satisfactory continuing control, planning and programming of projects, and the drug- and alcohol-free workplace program.

Because of the numerous issues with compliance, the FTA provided extra assistance and in 2016 penned a report showing what progress had been made in correcting the problems.

But there were still outstanding matters in contract procurement, “specifically as it relates to full and open competition, and contract administration practices.”

During “routine oversight activities,” the FTA found some of the new 2016 policies were not being adhered to and sent a consultant team to the board in late 2017, the letter states.

Procurement, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, disadvantaged business enterprise requirements, and the drug- and alcohol-free workplace program policies were still out of compliance, the FTA found after the site visits. And, new problems with the board’s financial operations and the transit delivery service provided by Community Bus Services were revealed, the letter states.

In March 2018, the FTA and members of the board had a conference call to discuss the problems and the board members “committed” to respond to the FTA’s corrective actions, but more than a year later, the FTA has not received the board’s responses, the letter states.

The concerns were “compounded” by a state audit of the board’s 2017 operations that found the board “had not established procedures to determine if their third-party contractor has sufficient financial controls in place to operate efficiently and reduce the risk that consumer fare collections have been accurately processed,” the letter states.

“The FTA is concerned with the audit’s findings and how it directly related to the federal funding TCTB receives to provide transit services in the area,” the letter states.

The board has been granted “numerous time extensions” and made numerous attempts to get written responses from the board on the outstanding questions, the letter states.

Faulkner said issues with finding and retaining a transit administrator must account for his lack of knowledge about the problems. The correspondence states it was addressed to the board, not the administrator.

By Monday, the FTA wants formal responses to its 2017 corrective action requests, full financial account records of Community Bus Services’ invoice charges for the 2016-18 calendar years, confirmation CBS met contract performance standards, written documentation “demonstrating the appropriateness of TCTB’s staffing levels, to also include the confirmation of completed education and / or training that demonstrates proficiency of TCTB’s technical capacity” and the board’s copy of conflicts of interest, the letter states.

If the FTA doesn’t receive the information, “the FTA will conclude that TCTB has failed to comply with federal requirements and FTA action is necessary to protect federal interests,” including temporarily withholding federal funds, wholly or partially terminating a federal award and “other similar” measures.

The procurement process in 2013 that provided the contract to CBS was one of the items targeted by the FTA in the triennial review, which led to the creation of a new procurement policy which is being used now for the first time.

When problems in the procurement for the newest contract came up this year, some of the board’s members argued parts of the new policy should be ignored and the contract should be given to CBS, initially ignoring the advice of the board’s attorney and the county’s transit administrator. But the members later switched their votes and allowed the transit administrator to restructure the bid packets in a way that he said may encourage a more competitive process.

The Trumbull County Transit Board was created in 2011 by Trumbull County commissioners when Niles ended its program. The 2016 review looked at how the board operated the prior three years. The next triennial review is expected this year.

When the Ohio Department of Transportation in 2011 offered to help commissioners set up the new countywide transit system, the commissioners opted not to, instead relying on advice from local people, including the company that would eventually get the original transit contract — Community Bus Services — and still has it, according to Tribune Chronicle archives.

Transit board members are appointed by Trumbull County commissioners. Although Ohio Revised Code allows commissioners to set qualifications for the board appointments, there are none. Faulkner had no prior experience in transportation before he was appointed to the board when it was formed.