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July 21, 2019

6/20/2019 7:30:00 AM
Our view
Time to get off the transit-go-round

And around and around they go, the Oneida-Vilas Transit Commission and the Oneida County Board of Supervisors.

Oneida County supervisors keep asking questions, the transit commission keeps resisting (though it claims otherwise), then Oneida County supervisors vote to allow them to borrow money anyway, even though they are not sure the transit operation is functional or even on the up-and-up.

Then they do it all over again the very next year. What a carnival.

This week the county board - with three dissenters - voted to allow the transit commission to borrow up to $192,000 to purchase four new buses. Last year they approved a similar resolution.

Supervisors aren't sure the commission needs new buses because the commission hasn't provided the county with any metrics, and an audit the county finally demanded hasn't been completed, but, hey, what the heck.

The thinking seemed to be the county wasn't on the hook for the transit commission's loan should it somehow default, so what's it to us, let them go borrow the money if they want to.

But the three dissenters - supervisors Jack Sorensen, Bill Liebert, and Alan VanRaalte - were right to vote against any loan authorization without at least seeing the audit results, and Vilas County should put its foot down and just say no when it takes up the matter in July.

For starters, the two counties are the proper oversight authorities for the transit commission. They are the creator counties, per its charter. They must approve the transit commission's budget. They must approve the transit commission's borrowing for projects, and they must approve financing for the development of any facilities.

Those are all critical oversight responsibilities, and those reviews were put into the charter for a reason. The only common sense reading of intent is that the county boards were meant to review the soundness of those projects and of the commission itself before approving financing for them.

To simply say, "Oh, we're not liable," without having critical information about transit operations is an abdication of that responsibility.

Supervisor Bill Liebert was absolutely correct to point out the county really is on the hook, whether or not it's on the hook for the loan itself. It's on the hook for making sure the transit commission functions responsibly, and the charter requirements for county board review of project loans and budgets and facilities development are the mechanisms by which the counties can do so.

This week, Oneida County failed to do its due diligence in that regard.

Supervisor Robb Jensen suggested if the audit later prompts a dissolution of the transit commission, the buses have value and can be sold off to close down shop. Perhaps then the counties could recoup the money the commission still owes them.

That's true, but those buses, once they are on the road, won't have the same value as when they are new. But even more important, giving an incompetent or mismanaged agency $192,000 in grant dollars means there's $192,000 less that could go to more deserving transit agencies.

What's more, we must remember that grant dollars are tax dollars, even if collected from a broader geography than these two counties, and taxpayers deserved a thorough review about whether this transit commission deserved those funds.

To be sure, denying permission to borrow the funds would likely kill any chance of new bus purchases this year, and that could potentially be fatal for the transit commission if its fleet's condition is as dire as commission members make it out to be.

But again, the county boards don't really know whether the portrayal of the fleet's condition is true. And because the counties don't have numbers, they don't really know whether the commission needs four buses.

As county board chairman Dave Hintz said recently, the commission can't possibly know where it's going if it doesn't know where it is. So why allow such an agency to borrow almost $200,000?

And if the commission goes under without that loan, that isn't the supervisors' fault. It's certainly not the supervisors' fault the agency hasn't compiled and handed over any metrics. It's not the supervisors' fault the commission has failed to follow its charter by blowing off annual audits, as supervisor Jack Sorensen pointed out.

And it's not supervisors' fault the agency has a woefully inadequate business plan which lacks critical components such as long-term budget and cash flow estimates, estimates of future growth in ridership and service miles, and projected capital expenditures, as Mr. VanRaalte pointed out.

There are certainly other questions. The business plan talks about coordination with private providers through a voucher system that "would permit NTC to provide transit to populations outside the larger municipalities by developing a 'feeder route' from outlying areas into towns that are preferred destinations. Once a rider is inside the destination locale, that person could use in-town routes to access business and services or access private taxi services."

To date, such a voucher system does not exist, and, so far as we know, there's no evidence one is being pursued. That coordination, however, could ensure the viability of private sector enterprises by preserving a role for markets and by avoiding giving unfairly subsidized transportation to nonvulnerable populations.

None of this is the supervisors' fault. What is their fault is failing to hold the transit commission accountable by approving a large loan for an enterprise about which so much is unknown.

To be sure, the transit commission could just be in its infancy and is learning as it finds its footing. Some have said the transit agency is just having growing pains, and maybe that's true.

But it could also be a massive boondoggle, mismanaged, unsustainable, and failing to adequately serve the population it is supposed to serve. It could even be an agency that is willful in its efforts to undercut the private sector.

The county board owes it to taxpayers to find out which scenario is closer to the truth. Instead, the Oneida County board acted so typically like government: We don't have a clue if this agency is functional or dysfunctional, but we're going to let it have gobs of tax dollars anyway.

Oneida County fumbled its due diligence; Vilas County can stop the transit-go-round and still come through for taxpayers.

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