The Wilkes County commissioners have become the governing body of the financially-troubled Wilkes Transportation Authority as they weigh whether to pursue making WTA part of a regional entity.

Tuesday night, the commissioners named themselves to the WTA board in place of the nine members they appointed earlier by unanimously approving amendments to a 2004 county ordinance that converted WTA from a private, nonprofit to a public agency.

The commissioners also unanimously approved a $15,000 allocation to WTA from the county’s general fund to ensure the WTA payroll is met for seven administrative employees and 25 drivers (nine fulltime and 16 part-time) in October. This was the latest of multiple similar appropriations.

Commissioners are awaiting results of a special audit of WTA finances by Whiteville-based Thompson, Price, Scott, Adams & Co., which the county hired in mid-August. County officials said the audit’s findings will help determine if criminal charges should be pursued.

Gary Blevins, chairman of the commissioners, said in mid-September that his board wanted to see the audit’s results before making any changes in WTA’s governance. County Manager John Yates said the audit would likely cost the county about $7,000.

The accounting firm’s completion of the audit was expected by now but was delayed by Hurricane Florence and is still two to three weeks away from being done. Whiteville is in Columbus County, among the hardest hit North Carolina counties.

Blevins said Wednesday that the commissioners need to explore and determine if affiliating with one or more counties as part of a regional transportation authority or remaining a one-county entity is best. “The amendments to the ordinance (approved Monday) will make this process easier…. We’ll probably spend the next month on this, but the state (Division of Public Transportation) is encouraging regional.”

He added, “One recommendation from the state is that we bring in a consultant before we do anything. We made contact” with such a person. No particular counties have been mentioned for potential regional alliances.

Debra Collins, N.C. Division of Public Transportation director, said Wednesday, “The legislature’s position is that they would like to see us consolidate (public transportation agencies) and it gave us money last year to support this. I try to make this occur when there are opportunities.”

Collins said Wilkes officials should evaluate and consider public transportation opportunities. “I am a firm believer that there is never one path.” She said Wilkes isn’t at risk of losing the state funds it gets for public transportation and emphasized that her goal is to maintain needed services.

Blevins said the Division of Public Transportation recommended that a new WTA director not be hired until a consultant provides input. He said a consultant has been contacted about this.

Commissioner Keith Elmore said Wednesday that the WTA board “was at a point very close to hiring” a good candidate for director after advertising the position and conducting interviews, but this wasn’t done out of consideration of the state’s recommendation.

Blevins appointed Elmore as the commissioner on the WTA board in December. He replaced Commissioner David Gambill, who had been on the WTA board since 2011.

Although Elmore made the motion Tuesday to approve the amendments to the WTA ordinance, he said when interviewed that he preferred keeping the free-standing WTA board. Gambill seconded the motion.

Elmore said, “There are a lot of people with transportation expertise” who could serve on the board. “I wanted to get new people on the board.” He has decades of work experience in this field.

Elmore was among replacements named to the WTA board and others reappointed early this year as part of corrective action taken to address a failure to follow WTA board appointment policy.

New appointees also were Debbie Nicholson of the Wilkes Health Department, Wilkesboro Town Planner Andrew Carlton and at-large member Doug Setzer, elected WTA chairman. Carlton was named to complete Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland’s term after Noland resigned, effective Dec. 1, 2017.

Reappointed were North Wilkesboro Town Manager Larry South and Brian Huffman as at-large members, Mary Smith as Wilkes Senior Services board representative, James Tedder from the Wilkes Department of Social Services and County Planning Director Eddie Barnes.

County Attorney Tony Triplett presented the amended WTA ordinance, saying it must go before commissioners for a second vote at another meeting if not approved unanimously Tuesday. Triplett said Wednesday that public transportation ordinances are among those not requiring public hearings to be amended.

Before making a motion to approve the amended ordinance, Elmore resigned from the WTA board and said, “I’m a little uncomfortable voting to take myself off the board so I am officially resigning.” Elmore said he called other WTA board members to tell them about their likely forthcoming replacement.

“Why we got to this point, I’m not going into that, but we have made some progress… but we ran out of time,” said Elmore, adding that the state wanted the Wilkes commissioners to assume full control as the WTA board. He said the commissioners were now embarking on a challenging task.

Blevins complimented and thanked Elmore and Setzer for their recent work with WTA “and for helping us understand what’s going on there…. Also for cooperating with the state to move forward and keep the state’s support and funding.” He said this enhanced potential for resolving WTA’s issues.

Triplett said WTA is a separate legal entity, which he said made the action Tuesday different from the board’s decision to become the governing body for the Wilkes Department of Social Services.

Triplett said that unlike Wilkes DSS Director John Blevins making monthly reports in regular commissioner meetings, separate meetings as the WTA board must be held. “It could be immediately before or after commissioner meetings, but it can’t be part of this meeting.”

The amendments say the chairman and vice chairman of the commissioners are the same for the WTA board and that the commissioners must appoint a WTA advisory committee. The committee wasn’t discussed Tuesday.

A consulting firm hired by the Division of Transportation to review WTA reported in May 2017 that ridership fell and administrative pay and overall costs rose from 2014 through mid-2017. WTA finances were in the red each of the last three years. WTA gave over $27,000 in Christmas bonuses in that period.

The consulting firm recommended changes that it said could save WTA more than $450,000 annually, including cutting administrative staff, adding drivers and having more efficient scheduling and more consistent Medicaid reimbursement invoicing. Collins met with the WTA board on May 16, 2017, to review the report, what the division planned to do and what it expected of WTA.

The 2018-19 WTA budget listed $1.38 million in operating expenses, including $845,500 in salaries. The 2017-18 budget listed $1.39 million in operating expenses, including $884,500 in salaries.

The report said WTA “made personal loans for personal expenses” to WTA Director Mike Norwood and Finance Manager Robin Kipp.

Norwood resigned at the May 16, 2017, meeting after the WTA board approved a motion to fire him if he didn’t resign as requested. Minutes said the board agreed to waive repayment of the personal loan WTA made to Norwood before his resignation in exchange for him not speaking about WTA. Norwood agreed.

The board promoted Kipp to director but she resigned at the July 31 WTA board meeting after board members said they had no faith in her plans for improving WTA finances. The board appointed Angie Gentry, WTA finance director, and Steven Church, WTA safety director, as co-interim directors during the search for a new director.

Gentry said Wednesday that WTA’s 25 vans make over 300 trips per day, with Medicaid recipients served by human service agencies accounting for about 80 percent of riders. Many WTA trips are for medical appointments, jobs and other essentials, but they also include purposes like shopping and attending events.

She said WTA’s revenue falls short of its average per trip cost of about $1.90. An attempt was made to cut expenses by ending the WE Shuttle service, but Gentry said it was kept due to public demand. WTA ended discounts for buying a large number of advance tickets.

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