Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Suwannee Valley Transit Authority (SVTA) Train Wreck Continues: Accounting still questionable - Vendors still not being paid

Formerly with the DOT, SVTA Director Gwen Pra makes a point to the SVTA Board.

SUWANNEE COUNTY, FL – The Suwannee Valley Transit Authority met at 6 o'clock yesterday in an unnoticed and unannounced public meeting. Still appearing to be millions of dollars in debt, the Authority is looking for its three member counties, Columbia, Hamilton and Suwannee, as well as other governmental agencies, to bail them out.

The Board members from Hamilton County seem bent on finding the truth and straightening out the mess. Suwannee County, the home of the SVTA train wreck, has been pretty much MIA. Columbia County's Ronald Williams, who has admitted that he has been part of the problem for decades, is Chairman of the Board. The Authority's new Director, Gwen Pra, who, as part of DOT had oversight of the Authority, retired from DOT and was brought in to run it.

Now Up To Speed?

The Authority is purportedly getting up to speed and now has computers and a network, something it hasn't had.

Director Pra reported, "Everything we are doing now is on the system in one way or another, whether it's a program we've written or it’s a contracted program... everything is now on one server so we can communicate with each other, as well as the outside world."

The Authority financial spread sheets are still out of kilter and many of the irregularities of the Authority continue to be unexplained.

One example was brought up at yesterday's afternoon meeting:

About "a year and a half ago," according to Ms Pra, a vendor was paid in advance for work he had never done. The amount was $18,000. The year was 2009.

Commissioner and Chairman of the SVTA Board, Ronald Williams of Columbia County, said Bill Steele, the new Operations Manager, had previously researched the issue:

Bill went and done some research and got to tracin back, tracin back, tracin back, goin back through the files, goin back through the records and found the way Jimmy [Swischer] had paid Mr. Lucas to do the work – Mr. Lucas had not done the work so they immediately sent Mr. Lucas a letter sayin hay, you either provide the work or you owe us about 18,000 dollars back. [Jimmy Swischer had been the Authority's Director for decades]

Director Pra, "It's about $18,000 as far as we understand it."

SVTA Board member and Hamilton County Commissioner, Randy Ogburn, asked, "He was paid in advance $18,000?"

SVTA Board member and Hamilton County Commissioner Josh Smith asked, "What was his comments to the letter?"

Ms. Pra answered, "He actually promised to come in and discuss it with us. We made an appointment. He did not show."

The SVTA  said it is looking into pursuing legal action, but the vendor has declared bankruptcy.

The Suwannee Valley Transit Authority fleet.

How Much Was The SVTA Really In Debt?

The Florida Department of Transportation and the North Florida Regional Planning Council, as well as independent audits, gave the SVTA clean bills of financial health for years. The present SVTA Director, Gwen Pra, was the DOT point woman to the SVTA. She was brought in to clean up the mess.

As of Feb 21, 2012 the SVTA was $3,250,507.41 in debt.

Commissioner Ogburn, "Are you saying when you came here Ms. Gwen [Pra] you inherited 3.2 million dollars debt?"

Ms. Pra responded, "Yes sir."

Commissioner Ogburn, "Those figures have never been given to us."

Commissioner Smith, "We were told 700,000 – a million dollars."

Ms. Pra, "And it just grew. We didn't know everything when we came. We became aware of things by the week and by the month."

Commissioner Ogburn asked, "Where did you get the three million dollars to pay it – or the two and a half million?

Director Gwen Pra was peppered with questions by Hamilton County Commissioners Randy Ogburn (left) and Josh Smith.

Ms. Pra said she eliminated routes.

Commissioner Ogburn, "It doesn't mean if you had a 3.2 million dollar debt that you corrected two and a half million dollars by eliminating nine routes. I can see the numbers, but I can't see where you got two and a half million dollars."

Commissioner Ogburn continued, "If I am going to tell the public that you inherited $3.2 million debt, I want to know where you got $2.5 million dollars to correct that... I wonder where you found $2,500,000."

Ms. Pra, "We didn't find it. We changed the operations completely."

Commissioner Ogburn, "That would reduce future expenditures, nothing that was in arrears. What was in arrears was in arrears if the numbers are right... Projected savings are not real dollar debt. That is deceiving. I want to see real dollars."

Checking the Numbers and Paying the Vendors

The SVTA has been short changing or not paying the vendors for years.

The SVTA spread sheets presented at the meeting had major discrepancies.

Commissioner Smith, looking at a spread sheet projected on the wall, pointed out that a company called Transcare was owed $308 in February and now the SVTA owes them $16,361. "That number must be wrong," said Com Smith.

Director Pra said that Transcare was an inactive vendor, "We don't owe them anything."

Operations Manager Steele weighed in, "That must be an error."

Columbia County's Ronald Williams said they should check the numbers and make sure they are right.

Commissioner Frisina of Columbia County wanted to know how the SVTA was paying vendors for past due amounts. She asked, "You are paying them for what they were owed for a month somewhere in time?"

She was told that was correct.

Commissioner Frisina asked how the Authority was catching up.

Director Pra said the Authority has paid quite a few of the vendors off.

Commissioner Smith of Hamilton County asked if the money received from the counties was used to pay the vendors or spent elsewhere.

Director Pra, "It's operations funding – It's been going on for 28 years."

Com Smith said that it wasn't fair to ask the small vendors to be the bank for the Authority... "I just wonder how that money was spent."

Director Pra said Columbia County money helped buy the new telephone system.

The Board decided to use the $54,000 Tri-County (Columbia, Hamilton, Suwannee) annual contribution to pay vendors.

The Authority said the transfer of funds from the Operations Account would not affect its operations.

Commissioner Ogden asked if the Authority was within its budget.

Commissioner Williams said they would know next month, when the Authority would meet in a special session to go over the budget. The Board's Attorney said it would be a good idea to advertise the meeting in the local newspapers.


SVTA – Out of Compliance With the Sunshine Law

Last night's meeting was rescheduled.

Director Pra said the Authority advertised all it meetings in one advertisement at the beginning of the year.

There was no effort made to advise the public or the media of last night's meeting. The only notice appears to be a notice hung on the door of the Authority sometime during the day of the meeting.

If you didn't know somebody, you didn't know about the meeting of this Public Authority.

Lip service to Florida's Sunshine Laws has long been a problem with the Suwannee Valley Transit Authority.

DOT's Pra, now the Director of the SVTA, seemed not to care. Yesterday's meeting notice was not posted on the SVTA web site.

Veteran Columbia County Commissioner Ronald Williams, who turned a blind eye to the waste, abuse, and possible fraud at the Authority for decades said, "I'm tryin to make sure everything is transparent." 

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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