The Ottumwa Courier

September 28, 2012

10-15 Transit gains traction after adversity

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — After more than a year of worry, the worst of 10-15 Regional Transit Agency’s troubles may be over as an agency — though that optimism does not yet extend to individual people.

Board members of the regional transportation agency credit the Iowa Ombudsman’s Office with helping them navigate a bumpy road.

“We were able to determine the Iowa Department of Transportation [did] want to close the door on this issue and move on,” said 10-15 Board member Lee Dimmitt, a Jefferson County supervisor who worked on the issue.

Though board members choose the direction of the nonprofit agency, the day-to-day operation is handled by transit management employees. Those administrators were accused of providing inflated passenger numbers to funding entities, like the Federal Transportation Administration and the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Both the state and the feds wanted to be paid back. But there were few records, so agencies like the in-town Ottumwa Transit, which was in a similar situation, and the more regional 10-15, didn’t have a lot of say in how much they owed.

Ottumwa Transit paid the amount presented to them. But they also went from an independent operation to being run by the city of Ottumwa. The cooperative effort paid off. Ottumwa Transit is generally back in the good graces of the government, said Diane Gawronski, the director of both 10-15 and Ottumwa Transit.

But 10-15 board members thought the state was being overly harsh on them. They searched for a way to appeal the amount the DOT wanted from them — while at the same time cooperating with the investigations and struggling to keep making restitution payments.

They worked with lawyers and a transportation consultant. They also brought up the fact that in the board’s opinion, previous DOT audits looked at records and found no wrongdoing. Progress was uncertain until the board tried the ombudsman, a state-employed troubleshooter.

“It is my understanding that the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Ombudsman’s office are at a point where there is an agreement between them to put this issue to rest,” said Gawronski.

There weren’t a lot of changes. The ombudsman’s office agreed there were things the DOT figured wrong, but that 10-15 was at fault, too.

“[They] said there was enough blame to go around,” Dimmitt said about a recent phone call he had from the Ombudsman’s office.

There will be some changes at the state level for IDOT.

“It’s become more of an enforcement agency,” said Dimmitt, “rather than coming in for tea. [That’s a] change to their [compliance] audit policy.”

The ombudsman asked the DOT what they were going to do to 10-15 when it comes to the new buses. The regional group was given new buses because of high ridership numbers — numbers that were later found to have been exaggerated.

“They told her they hadn’t thought of that,” said Dimmitt.

But it worked out OK. It looked like the DOT might have owed 10-15 some money back. And maybe 10-15 should not have been given those new buses. The two state entities appear to have decided to call the whole thing even.

There wasn’t a reduction in the 10-15 debt, which was something of a disappointment, Dimmitt said. But then, they don’t have to pay back the enormous sums involved in paying for new buses.

Greg Kenning, the Wapello County supervisor on the 10-15 board, said during the meeting Thursday that the financial report for this month was good news. The agency is $66,000 ahead of where it was in August, 2011.

“We were crawling about this time last year,” he said.

Dimmitt said he was certain support from the city of Ottumwa also contributed to the regional transport service surviving.

“I think we did the best we could for our riders,” he added.

“The chair of the 10-15 board and others worked diligently with the ombudsman’s office in assisting the transit agency to obtain an equitable ruling,” said Gawronski, “and with some relief, we are all pleased to move forward.”

The feds appear satisfied now, too.

“Back in June, we received a letter from the FTA notifying 10-15 and Ottumwa Transit that their investigation of the agency is done. They did say they reserve the right to go after employees, which is why I say the ‘agency’ looks to be [in the] clear.”

As for former employees, Gawronski said she doesn’t know what will happen. She does know, however, that in recent months, some current transit employees were called to Des Moines. They were summoned as witnesses to appear before a federal grand jury.

She has avoided speaking with those employees about the subject and has not heard word of any indictment being handed down.

A representative from the U.S. federal prosecutor’s office told the Courier that initial grand jury information is confidential.