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May 26, 2011

Council members react to OTA audit

OTTUMWA — Members of the Ottumwa City Council expressed doubts Wednesday about whether the Ottumwa Transit Authority board should remain independent.

The comments come in the wake of a state audit that accuses OTA of inflating rider numbers used to determine funding.

Executive Director Pam Ward denied the allegation. She said there are different methods of counting riders.

Ward and her staff wouldn’t lie, said Stan Kerr. He said Ward does a very challenging job and does it well.

To Kerr, vice-chairman of the OTA board, the issue isn’t Ward but employee anger about plans to reduce drivers to part-time.

“We were trying to reduce all drivers to part time,” Kerr said Wednesday. “We were trying to save money for the [community]. Those that were full-time [expressed] dissatisfaction.”

And, he added, those drivers had the backing of a “certain city councilman.”

Councilman Mitch Niner said comments like that usually refer to him.

“Here’s the sad part of it: It started out with just me asking some simple questions,” Niner said. “I was basically ignored. I asked questions pertaining to our usage of brand new city buses. Still I was ignored. I gave them fair warning. If you people won’t answer my questions, I will file a complaint with the FTA and ask my questions to them.”

Complaints from Niner and a bus driver led officials to begin investigating OTA. A separate petition sent to the Iowa State Auditor’s Office resulted in the report released Wednesday.

Now, it’s not just Niner questioning whether OTA should remain independent. Brian Morgan believes the city should run OTA.

“Absolutely. We attempted to take that board over [when] I made the motion around a year ago,” Morgan said. “Who knows, if that had happened some of these questions might have been answered. I don’t see how we can not take that over with the things that have come forward.”

Councilman Jeremy Weller initially disagreed with Niner and Morgan.

“But after a meeting on the preliminary findings, I said, well, if this stuff is true, we need to take over this board — if we have some hard facts,” Weller said.

And now?

“I want the Ottumwa City Council to take over the board from OTA,” Weller said. “If we’re going to be listed as responsible along with Ottumwa Transit, we need to have better oversight. That was the first thing I told Joe Helfenberger. In fact, I’m not so sure we don’t need to take a look at these other independent boards if we’re going to be [dragged] into the mess.”

The OTA board could serve as advisors, Weller said.

Councilman Bob Meyers received a copy of the auditor’s report Wednesday. He said regulations on ridership counts appear ambiguous at first glance. He plans to reread those sections.

There does, however, need to be more supervision by the city, Meyers said. He said he’s not prepared to have the city take over the board until he has done more research, if then.

Niner said the city needs to give the federal government evidence of corrective action.

“It’s the only choice we have; if we don’t show immediate attempts to correct this, we’re going to lose our funding and [Ottumwa Transit] will cease to exist.”

“This isn’t a debate,” Niner  said of the 33-page auditor’s report, “They’re telling us, ‘This is what it is.’ They’re tired of excuses — they want to see changes. We have an excellent transit system. But if we don’t have the ridership, we don’t have the ridership. There’s no use finagling the numbers around, and that’s what they’ve been doing down there for years. This is the end result.”

Kerr said Ward still enjoys the support of the OTA board members and the council doesn’t need to take over.

“They’ve got enough departments to worry about without the OTA,” said Kerr.

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