Plans to increase Wilkes Transportation Authority transportation rates, reduce staffing and other changes to improve the agency’s finances have been announced.

The Wilkes County commissioners, acting as the WTA board, approved these actions during a Dec. 18 meeting.

Gary Page, acting WTA director, said discussions are underway with a potential new WTA director.

“There will be a reduction in force (at WTA) next week to cut overhead,” said Page, adding that two or three of the agency’s eight administrative positions will be cut.

Robert Brink Jr., a public transportation professional hired to evaluate WTA due to its financial problems, said WTA’s eight administrative positions were double what an organization its size should have, so many current WTA roles could be combined into one or divided among staff. Administrative staff costs are partly reimbursed by the state.

N.C. Division of Public Transportation Director Debbie Collins recommended Brink and also recommended consideration of making WTA part of a regional public transit.

Forensic audit

Also approved was a contract with R. Lawrence Young, a certified public accountant in Raleigh, for a forensic audit of WTA financial records. A forensic audit is conducted for use as evidence in court, typically for prosecution of some type of financial malfeasance.

Page said results of the forensic audit will be shared with the local district attorney’s office to help determine if further action is needed. Page said the cost of the audit was estimated at $20,000.

Young conducted a forensic audit of certain financial records related to Wilkes Central High School athletics in a case in which a bookkeeper at the school was charged with embezzlement and later pleaded guilty to this offense. He is former special agent in charge of the State Bureau of Investigation’s Financial Crime Investigations Unit.

Rate increases

Brink also said WTA wasn’t properly calculating the full cost of trips and appeared to be losing about 50 cents per service mile. He also recommended seeking annual county government funding to help keep rider fees down.

Details on the new rate increases are given in detail on Page B3 of this issue, but Page said everything is being increased by about 25 to 30 percent.

An exception is the rate for WE Shuttle trips, with 24 established stops on routes around the Wilkesboros. Page said it will now cost $3 to ride the WE Shuttle per trip to anywhere on the route, up from $2 now.

New WE Shuttle and “demand response” trip (based on passenger requests) rates take effect starting Jan. 14, but new rates for transportation provided under contracts with the Wilkes Department of Social Services and other agencies won’t start until early February, said Page.

He said rate increases for trips made under these contracts require advance notice of at least four weeks. Page noted that Medicaid funds transportation for most of the clients of agencies served by WTA.

About 80 percent of WTA’s transportation services are for Wilkes DSS clients, about 16 percent are for clients of other agencies and the remaining 4 percent are WE Shuttle and demand response trips.

Page said Wilkes DSS rates now equal $2.95 per mile. Non-contracted rates now equal about $1.41 per mile but will be about $1.83 per mile with the increases.

Also starting on Jan. 14, the WE Shuttle will only operate on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It now operates each weekday. Hours on the days it operates will still be 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Page said WTA employees also aren’t receiving Christmas bonuses this year and that quarterly medical supplements of $800 per employee are on hold “until we see where we are financially.” Eliminating Christmas bonuses is saving about $4,000 this year.

A May 2017 report on WTA from a Florida-based consulting firm, released by Collins, concurred with Brink’s recommendations.

WTA’s revenue in fiscal 2017-18 included $1.04 million for trips for clients of human service agencies, $36,000 for “demand response” trips and $5,000 for weekend shuttle trips. The $1.04 million included about $890,000 from the Wilkes Department of Social Services.

WTA finances have often been in the red recently, resulting in appropriations from the county commissioners.

A consultant’s report said WTA “made personal loans for personal expenses” to WTA Director Mike Norwood and Finance Manager Robin Kipp. Other questionable usage of WTA funds have been identified.

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.

The commissioners have indicated plans for reinstating individuals other than themselves as the WTA board.

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