The Ottumwa Courier

November 2, 2012

City buses move in the right direction

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — The good news means a lot to Ottumwa Transit advisory board members, who heard this week about the number of bus passengers using the service.  

“We looked at financial reports, and we looked at ridership,” said Robert LaPoint, the chairman of the advisory board.

He said for the month of September, Transit had 18,949 riders.

“We were happy with that,” LaPoint said. “Last September, we had 16,605.”

Numbers from before then are difficult to trust, officials have said. So the city and the new board wondered what “the real numbers” would look like when an accurate, verifiable count was made.

The advisory board was started after an investigation determined possible wrongdoing within the former bus service when it was known as “The Ottumwa Transit Authority.”

The City of Ottumwa took over and oversees bus transportation with a city department simply called Ottumwa Transit. Upper management from the city have stayed closely involved in the operation. They also created the new board, which provides advice and some oversight but leaves the city in control of decision making.

Investigators alleged that in previous years buses were rented to groups for charter in violation of government regulations, records on ridership and payroll were improperly maintained and that numbers reported about passengers were falsified.

Yet those inflated numbers were used to determine how much money the bus service received from state and federal sources.

The money is being steadily paid back to the government.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Joni Keith, the City of Ottumwa’ attorney and human resources manager. “The budget looks good; I don’t see any particular issues there. We’re able to pay money back to the state — and still have a little in the bank left over.”

Funding is still based on ridership.

“The numbers are steadily rising,” Keith said.  

The biggest jump in passenger rides, said LaPoint, can be attributed to the development boom out at the area surrounding the Ottumwa Regional Airport.

“The airport [route] had 215 riders last September,” he said. “This year for September, there were 3,337.”

He mentioned the Iowa Works center, Ottumwa Job Corps and a high school program taking place out there.

Across the city, he said, some routes are up or down, but overall, the numbers are going in the right direction. So is the reputation of Ottumwa Transit, Keith said.

Though there was some hesitation at first, officials at the state level have seen that Ottumwa’s takeover has been good for the department.

“The DOT has been super to work with,” said Keith.

She believes the sincere efforts made by the city to do the right thing — a different type of board, city management of the operation, firing the old manager, hiring a former police lieutenant to help keep the department within the law, retaining an IDOT-recommended consultant to properly reconfigure routes and passenger counts — has resulted in an improved working relationship with IDOT.