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Transit board likely to lose project funds

Indecision has left board scrambling to spend $347K

WARREN — It took too long for the Trumbull County Transit Board to settle on a project to use expiring federal funds, so the board likely lost about $347,000 promised by the Federal Transit Administration to improve transportation for senior citizens and disabled people.

That is, unless the FTA grants the board an extension to use the funds that expire at the end of the fiscal year. Administrator Mike Salamone said he requested an extension from the FTA the week before the transit board met July 16.

While the fiscal year doesn’t end until Sept. 30, the FTA shuts down Sept. 15, and the deadline to submit grants for the agency’s approval was July 15, the day before the local transit board met.

Although the need to spend the money before it expires was raised by Salamone at the beginning of the year, the board failed to agree on a project. The money was set aside for the transit board in 2017, before Salamone was the administrator.

BOARD TURMOIL

The discussion of how to use the lapsing money once again escalated into an argument between some of the board members at the meeting, similar to prior meetings.

In addition to how to use the $347,000, members on the board — described as the sinking Titanic by member John Fowler — also had heated discussion of moves board member Jim Pirko made in the weeks and months before it became too late to use the money. Some of his fellow board members accused him of delaying one project that would have brought new sidewalks along Elm Road in Warren and Howland.

Pirko declared sidewalks were “asinine,” said the money should be spent on rides, and asked the board for more time at the June 18 meeting to try to find someone to provide contributing funds to use the money for rides. A special meeting was scheduled June 30 to see what Pirko was able to find, and so Salamone could obtain letters of support promising matching funds for the sidewalk project.

However, Pirko and board member Robert Faulkner asked for the special meeting to be canceled in a conference call with board attorney Dan Keating the day before — June 29– because Pirko had not found any entity to contribute funds. Salamone wanted to hold the meeting and had letters of support from communities willing to contribute funds for the sidewalk project, he said.

PROCESS REQUIRED

However, even if Pirko had lined up financial contributors before the June 30 meeting, there still wouldn’t have been time to use the money on rides. Because of the type of designation the funds have, the federal government requires the board to go through certain processes to use the funds for that purpose.

The board would have had first to offer a percentage of the money for nonprofits to apply. If a nonprofit applied for the funds to use in a qualifying project improving transportation for seniors and / or the disabled, a portion of the $347,000 would have to be appropriated to that group. If no one applied, the full amount could be used on transportation with the appropriate match.

Then, the board would have had to show it had the money up front to pay a contractor because the grant money is paid out after the FTA sees invoices from transit systems. Trumbull Transit is no longer allowed to run services without having the money up front for a contractor after racking up a $2.3 million debt to its former contractor for rides in 2018 and 2019 that is just now being paid. After lining up those elements, the administrator would have had to go through the proper bid / proposal request to search for and select a contractor. Finally, the FTA would have to approve of the arrangments.

AGENCIES SHOW INTEREST

Board member Carl Clemens accused Pirko of purposely delaying the June 30 meeting to give himself more time, even though there wasn’t time enough anyway for Pirko’s suggestion.

Although there was no time to complete the steps to use the money for transportation, there was time to use it for the sidewalks, if the board had made a decision in June, Salamone said.

Clemens said Pirko was up to “shenanigans” and said because he worked on his own goals, the transit board is losing the money.

Pirko didn’t meet with Ed Stark, executive director of the Trumbull County Board of Developmental Disabilities, until June 30, or the Trumbull County Senior Levy Advisory Council until July 8.

Salamone went to those meetings, too, though Stark and the senior levy administrator had to invite him, he said.

On the day of the July 16 transit meeting, the day after the FTA deadline, the CEO of Trumbull Community Action Program sent a letter to the board stating it can commit to the local match to use the money for a transportation program for the full amount. Stark ALSO said his agency could match up to $80,000.

The senior levy advisory council will not work with the transit board until they see changes in accounting procedures and proof their money is spent on senior rides — one of the reason they stopped recommending commissioners fund TCTB with senior levy funds.

Salamone said letters indicating TCAP and the board of developmental disabilities are willing to work with the transit board could be used on a future project with funds that have not yet expired. If the board directs him to do so, a program could be designed and underway in early next year, he said.

The board decided to wait to see if the FTA will grant an extension to use the funds before making any resolution declaring they won’t use the money. Salamone said those funds — which can only be used in limited ways — could also be used to update a coordinated plan in conjunction with WRTA, in part, and perhaps pay for a mobility manager.

The next regular transit board meeting is Aug. 20.

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