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Published: Friday, 2/3/2012

TARTA's leader told to explain lack of audit data

Trustees' panel set to review report Feb. 24

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
TARTA general manager James Gee TARTA general manager James Gee
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TARTA General Manager James Gee has been directed to prepare a report by Wednesday concerning his agency's failure to submit documents for its 2010 finances in a timely manner to auditors, resulting in a state declaration last month that the accounts were "unauditable."

Bonita Johnson, president of the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority's board of trustees, said Mr. Gee's explanation for the audit problem and "action plan" for preventing its recurrence will be reviewed at a Feb. 24 meeting of the trustees' administration committee, which then will make a report to the full board.

During the board meeting Thursday morning, several other trustees chastised Mr. Gee for failing to keep the board apprised of delays in completing the 2010 financial review.

"It is embarrassing to us to have a report like that appear in the paper," said Francis Frey, Maumee's board representative and a past TARTA president. "We take great pride in the position we have in the community, and in the service we provide to the community, and this damages our reputation. … Because we receive public money, we have that obligation to do things on time."

Trustee Robert Vasquez, a Toledo representative, was even more blunt.

"The fact that we did not have everything prepared for the audit was totally unacceptable," he scolded. "The communication to the board members was just terrible. We were blindsided."

TARTA trustee Bob Vasquez TARTA trustee Bob Vasquez
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State Auditor Dave Yost's office on Jan. 13 declared the transit authority's 2010 books "unauditable" because of 31 missing documents needed to verify the accounting, some of which had been requested by TARTA's outside accountants since May. Mr. Yost gave TARTA officials 90 days to produce the records or face legal action.

Last week, the transit authority issued a statement that it had submitted the missing records to the outside accountants, Clifton Gunderson.

Carrie Bartunek, a spokesman for Mr. Yost, said Wednesday she could not confirm that all documents had been received and added that the accounting firm had submitted follow-up questions to TARTA. Mr. Gee told the trustees Thursday that responses to the follow-up questions were forthcoming.

During a Jan. 20 interview, Mr. Gee characterized the tardy records as "a list of minor details" and blamed the delay on complications with getting a new computer accounting system running, followed by difficulty scheduling meetings between his staff and Clifton Gunderson representatives.

In his presentation Thursday to the trustees, made before their comments, Mr. Gee conceded that the audit problem's "timing is terrible" and "reflects poorly" on the transit authority, and he apologized for not notifying board members sooner about the issue.

"It is part of my duty to make sure you are not surprised," he told the trustees.

Mrs. Johnson said that creation of a permanent audit subcommittee to the trustees' finance committee was among ideas discussed when the administration committee met Monday. It was during that committee meeting, she said, that Mr. Gee was instructed to prepare his report.

Mr. Frey, meanwhile, pledged prompt filings of future audit documents.

"To our best ability … we will be on time from here on out," he said.

Earlier in the meeting, the transit board adopted a formal policy concerning service termination for communities that vote to withdraw their memberships.

Consistent with state law passed last year, the policy calls for such service to terminate six months after a withdrawal vote is certified as having passed.

In a rare voice vote by the TARTA board, the trustees representing Perrysburg, Rossford, and Sylvania Township dissented on the grounds that their taxpayers will end up paying for a longer time than their communities' memberships because of the way property taxes are assessed and collected.

"It's still Perrysburg's position that service be provided through the end of the year" if city voters approve a withdrawal referendum on the March 6 ballot, trustee Kevin Rantanen said.

He and Troy Stevenson of Sylvania Township and Anthony Silagye of Rossford dissented in the 11-3 vote. Sylvania Township trustees recently withdrew an opt-out measure from their March 6 ballot to allow more time to develop alternative transit plans; Rossford has debated leaving TARTA too.

Leaders in all three communities have complained that their property owners pay more in taxes than they receive in service, and that TARTA's operation of full-size transit buses in the suburbs is wasteful.

A state law establishing a process for TARTA members to opt out allows referendums to be placed on local ballots through Nov. 5, 2013, and specifies that after any such questions pass, communities' memberships and the transit authority's related tax-collection powers expire six months after certification.

But because such taxes are assessed on an annual basis and collected twice per year, Perrysburg property owners will pay the full year's TARTA assessment for 2012 even if Perrysburg service ceases in October -- assuming an April certification for a March 6 vote.

"Perrysburg's been overpaying for decades. We feel we should have a full year," Mr. Rantanen said, vowing to revisit the matter if the opt-out question passes.

Mrs. Johnson said the new policy merely reflects a very specific state law, but "if there's something else that's passed, we'd have to look at it again."

A bill pending in the Ohio General Assembly, co-sponsored by state Reps. Randy Gardner (R., Perrysburg) and Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), would lengthen the transition period from six months to a year and require TARTA to account for tax overpayments by opt-out communities. TARTA also would be allowed to continue to collect taxes in such communities to the extent necessary to pay off debt incurred while those communities were still members.

The state law and the bill do not actually mention TARTA by name, but apply only to transit authorities that collect a property tax and whose jurisdiction includes a county with a population exceeding 400,000. TARTA is the only Ohio transit authority to meet those two criteria.

Also during the meeting, Mr. Gee reported that the transit authority has taken possession of the new garage and headquarters for the Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Authority at Wade and Williams streets.

The $7.5 million building is on the former Page Dairy site. Mr. Gee said TARPS staff, vehicles, and equipment will move in during the next three weeks, with an open house planned for Feb. 24.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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