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Transit board nears paying off debt

Commissioner-elect questions legitimacy of waiver offer

WARREN — The Trumbull County Transit Board is almost finished paying off the debt it owes its former contractor from services rendered in 2018 and 2019, but voted during its Thursday meeting to hold off on issuing the last check.

Board President Duane Hennen said he reached out to Terry Thomas, owner of Community Bus Services, and asked if Thomas would consider waiving the last payment.

The federal government this summer began releasing funds to the transit board to pay a $2.3 million backlog owed to CBS for services rendered in 2018 and 2019, and all but about $43,000 of the debt has been paid back.

The Federal Transit Administration put restrictions on the transit board’s abilities to access funds while it waited for the board to come into compliance with federal regulations.

Hennen said he asked Thomas if the company might waive the remaining balance, because the future needs of the transit board are unclear. Hennen said Thomas is thinking about it and is expected to get back to him before the December meeting.

Hennen and board members Martha Yoder and Carl Clemens voted to hold off on writing the check to CBS until Thomas responds to Hennen. Members Marlene Rhodes and Linda Kirkland voted in favor of writing the check. Kirkland said she prefers to just write the check and “be done with it.”

The transit board has about $105,000 in funds, and has no guarantee it will have any new funding sources, though efforts are being made to identify new sources of local funding.

The board is no longer providing transportation directly; Trumbull County commissioners and the Western Reserve Transit Authority are providing services. The county may join WRTA, but the transit board may try to provide services, if it can acquire the local funds to front an operation and bring in state or federal grants.

Clemens said even if the county joins WRTA, there may be a need for a stop-gap program.

During the public comment section of the meeting, county commissioner-elect Niki Frenchko, who takes office in January, questioned Hennen’s conversations with Thomas.

She said it appears Hennen is acting outside his authority by trying to modify a contract with Thomas, without first seeking the board’s authorization.

Frenchko said it is inappropriate for Hennen to have side conversations with a vendor the transit board owes money to. Hennen acknowledged the board did not give him authorization to ask Thomas for a deal.

Frenchko said the move is not transparent, and questioned if Thomas would get something in the future in exchange for waiving the $43,000 now. She said the transit board’s problem for years has been a lack of transparency and the appearance of impropriety.

Hennen, appointed to the board earlier this year, said no promises were made to Thomas.

Frenchko said Hennen doesn’t have the right to modify a contract on behalf of the board, and said the board should pay any bill legally charged.

Clemens said Frenchko should leave the issue in the hands of the transit board and focus on her business.

Attorney Daniel Keating, the board’s attorney, said he doesn’t see an issue with Hennen speaking informally with a vendor to see if he would waive the balance.

The money should have been paid a long time ago, based on the contract, and the transit board has been in violation of the contract because of how long it has taken to pay CBS, Keating said.

Keating said he would be surprised if CBS waived the amount, and he doesn’t see how waiving the balance would give CBS an advantage.

Accepting a waiver of the balance could be seen as a favor and influence potential future contracts, Frenchko said.

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