Dist V Com Scarlet Frasina Breaks Tie: Puts residents on hook for $300,000 loan to Suwannee Valley Transit Authority. Collateral – what's that?
Posted March 02, 2012 07:59 pm
COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last night, at the Columbia County, County Commission meeting, residents laughed and snickered at Jack Berry protégé, District III Commissioner Jody DuPree, after he orchestrated a last minute agenda addition that went around in circles for an hour and a half. Residents were incredulous as County Attorney Marlin Feagle and County Manager Dale Williams couldn't come up with any Suwannee Valley Transit Authority (SVTA) collateral that could be used to secure the loan.
County Chairwoman Scarlet Frisina
Finally, Chairwoman Scarlet Frasina put an end to the agony and broke a 2-2 tie. Her vote put the county's residents on the hook for the $300,000 loan to the long dysfunctional SVTA.
For years and years the SVTA has been a Florida legend, flying just below the radar except for those in the know. Sometime after Governor Scott was elected it was brought up that the SVTA needed an audit. It never happened.
The Suwannee Valley Transit Authority has had some of the funkiest bookkeeping in Florida. Year after year, the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council signed off on the finances for the SVTA, giving the organization a clean bill of health.
In what can only be considered cost averaging, the SVTA historically billed Medicaid the maximum allowed every month. It didn't make a difference how many fares they carried. If they could bill for 50 rides and carried 24, they would bill for 50 and hope to make up the difference in the following month.
In one meeting it was reported that the former director of the SVTA, Jimmy Swisher, who had been its director since he got out of high school in 1979, told the board that he had to go back and change the coding and backdate two years worth of files because they had miscoded everything. It is not clear how and if Medicaid ever paid those SVTA invoices.
The SVTA had faulty bookkeeping, faulty financial statements, no phone system, no computer system, a pie-in-the-sky revenue model and a jacked up revenue stream.
Until the fall of 2011 the SVTA would not release its bylaws.
It has also been reported that drivers would charge passengers for rides and keep the fares.
Representative Elizabeth Porter Involved In The Cover-up
Former Columbia County Commissioner and current Florida Representative Elizabeth Porter used to chair the SVTA Disadvantaged Board meetings. It was reported that the then County Commissioner Porter in an effort to keep from having to answer embarrassing questions kept folks out of the meetings by locking the doors or changing locations and not telling everyone.
Independent contractors that did business with the SVTA were not paid for months, if at all, and many times had to use their own personal lines of credit to pay for fuel to transport passengers. This had gone for years.
The present director of the SVTA, Gwenn Pra, came from the Florida DOT, where she was in charge of grants to Florida's various transportation districts, the SVTA being one of them. It was reported that during one of her appearances at the local Shared Services Committee she defended former Director Swisher for 45 minutes. She also sat on the SVTA Board as an alternate.
19 Years and $300,000 later
In November of 1992, SVTA's Swisher forgot to pay the Workman's Comp for employee Richard Wood. Thirteen days later the employee claimed he was hurt. In November 1996, Mr. Swisher received a letter from Gulfview Chiropractic in Hudson, Florida stating that Mr. Wood could go back to work.
19 years after Mr. Wood's purported injury, the SVTA was still paying his doctor's bills, still paying him two thirds of his salary, put a hot tub in his house, paid his health insurance, and paid for his transportation to Hudson Florida for treatment.
The SVTA's new Operations Chief, William Steele, a former law enforcement officer, is researching this case as well as many issues regarding the SVTA.
Mr. Steele told the Observer, "If I find enough evidence of wrong doing or illegal activities, I will be turning my findings over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement."
Mr. Steele, as reported earlier in the Observer, is working hard to straighten out the SVTA train wreck.
The $300,000 Columbia County Loan
The one hour and thirty minute loan conversation was monopolized by Com DuPree. Only Commissioner Bailey seemed to have the packet of information received from the SVTA days before the meeting. The latest SVTA audit had gone missing from the county's files and could not be reviewed.
The loan was designed to pay the SVTA vendors that were stiffed by the Authority.
After the conversation it was clear that no one was satisfied with the SVTA business plan.
It was also clear that the loan, if made, could not be collateralized.
Commissioners Williams and DuPree saw no problem with that.
Commissioner's Bailey and DePratter did.
On a 2-2 vote the chair breaks the tie.
Without a word of explanation, Com Frisina voted for the loan.
After the meeting, the Observer asked Com DuPree if he was responsible for having this item added to the agenda, he responded, "I had nothing to do with it."
Earlier today the Observer spoke with Chairwoman Frisina. She said she is conflicted about her vote and is giving it more thought.
The Florida Attorney General has stated the following:
… even though the Sunshine Law does not prohibit a board from adding topics to the agenda of a regularly noticed meeting, the Attorney General’s Office has advised boards to postpone formal action on any added items that are controversial.
The legislative process allows Chairwoman Frisina to move to pull this item back off the table; allows her to write to the Attorney General and ask if a loan by Columbia County to the SVTA can be collateralized; and of course ensure that all the information is available to everyone, so that all can be included in the conversation.
Time will tell if Chairwoman Frisina takes advantage of her power and works to expand the democratic process in Columbia County.