Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Former Suwannee Valley TA Operations Director: Team SVTA Accomplished Its Mission 

Prior to August 2011 the SVTA was a debt-ridden, out of compliance, poorly managed agency. From August 2011 through May 2014, the SVTA turned itself around, and became a sterling example of how a government agency, when run and managed by experienced and skilled experts is supposed to operate. I never submitted a resignation at any time. Commissioner Ronald Williams caved and eliminated my position, Director of Operations, with no regard to the damage that it would do to SVTA.

Bill Steele's Resignation: The Observer got it wrong

I never submitted a resignation at any time.  Steve Holmes, Executive Director of the Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged (CTD), threatened Columbia County Commissioner Ronald Williams, the SVTA Chairman to either get rid of me or face losing the Medicare Contract, which was about 80% of SVTA’s revenue.  Com. Williams caved and eliminated my position, Director of Operations, with no regard to the damage that it would do to SVTA.

2012-13 Infusion of $339,647 CTD Funds

At no time between August 2011 and April 2014 did the CTD ever infuse SVTA with any additional funds. SVTA funds came from several sources, two of which involved a contract between SVTA and the CTD – Medicaid Transportation and strict CTD transportation funds.

In 2011, despite the SVTA being about 1.4 million dollars in debt, but it was likely closer to 2 million dollars, the management team made several requests to the CTD for infusion of funds, but was refused each and every time. 

Conversely, the CTD Commission reduced the amount of funding by over $500,000 in FY 2011; by another 12% in 2012; and another 10% in 2013.  When the new Administrator, Gwen Pra, was hired she was not informed by Commissioner Williams of the severe financial shortfalls, nor of the operational mess of the SVTA. She was provided no support from the CTD, or from the three counties served by the SVTA: Columbia, Hamilton, Suwannee.

However, the CTD did demand that SVTA meet five specific criteria within 180 days or have its contract with the CTD revoked. After the SVTA's administrative team met the challenge, it was applauded by both CTD Executive Director Holmes and SVTA Board Chair Ronald Williams.

Personnel Increase: from 18 to 40; fringe benefits as bait

The number of SVTA employees went from about 18 in August 2011, to over 40 by January 2014.  Financial audits and personnel work requirement audits show that SVTA was extremely under staffed and ill-equipped for its mission.

SVTA’s pay for employees ranged from 5% to 40% below that of other CTCs (Community Transportation Coordinator). The ratio of management vs. rank and file at SVTA was below almost every other government agency in the surrounding region.  The fringe benefits for SVTA employees were intentionally the best around. SVTA could not compete for qualified talent based on salary alone, so it made up the shortfall with benefits, such as 100% health care for its employees paid for by SVTA. 

The SVTA got and kept qualified and certified employees by using the fringe benefit packages as the bait.

Comp Time for Management

Federal Labor law allows exempt employees to be granted comp time for hours worked over 40 hours. The Board approved the 2012 SVTA Personnel Policy which entitles employees to overtime pay or compensatory time off depending on their status. The comp time was earned and when SVTA could afford it, paid it out since the demands of the day would not allow the employee who earned it to take it as time off.

Spiraling Out of Control: Where was everybody?

Where was the Executive Director of the CTD and his staff when SVTA was in deep debt and non-compliance during 2005 thru 2011, and before?  Where was the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council’s (NCFRPC) Transportation Specialist or its Local Coordinating Board (LCB) during the years when SVTA was allowed to spiral out of control?  Where was the Gainesville Medicaid Field Office or SVTA Chairman Williams?

SVTA Chairman, Commissioner Ronald Williams, has proven himself to be a puppet instead of standing up for what is right. When it suited him, he was all talk and took no action when faced with hard choices between right and wrong. That is local politics.

Author Stew Lilker began debasing Team SVTA and its management only after the SVTA became solvent and proved itself to be a quality governmental/public agency.

Between 2005 - 2011 the SVTA was allowed by the CTD, by the NCFRPC, and others to go down the toilet and into the sewer. Where was author Stew Lilker?

If Stew Lilker had reviewed the minutes of the NCFRPC during that time, he would have seen what a joke the NCFRPC had been when it came to its oversight of SVTA – for which it was paid very well by the CTD.

The SVTA Website

The SVTA was close to completing its website before Com. Ronald Williams elected to disrupt the good workings of SVTA and eliminate three of SVTA’s top four management personnel. Additionally, unforeseen costs forced the SVTA to put its website on the low priority list. Though Columbia County Commissioner Bucky Nash stated many times that he would get funding for a website, he failed to deliver on his promise. 

Team SVTA Accomplished Its Mission

The SVTA was a debt-ridden, out of compliance, poorly managed agency. The CTD, the NCFRPC, the LCB, and the SVTA Board of Directors allowed the SVTA to spiral out of control prior to August 2011.

From August 2011 through May 2014, the SVTA turned itself around, and became a sterling example of how a government agency, when run and managed by experienced and skilled experts, led by a knowledgeable proven Administrator, is supposed to operate.

The citizens of Columbia, Hamilton, and Suwannee Counties now have an excellent and professional organization. 

Finally, The Audit By the DOT Inspector General (IG)

The ongoing audit of the SVTA by the DOT Inspector General has still not been released. Apparently, to pacify or placate the CTD Executive Director, the IG's office is dragging its feet on releasing its audit, now that they appear to have found out that SVTA was in fact a well run agency under the past Administrator. I hope the audit and its findings come out soon.  

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On August 26, 2014, Ralph Kitchens, Local Trans. Disadvantaged Bd. member wrote:

As a member of the Columbia County Transportation Disadvantaged Local Coordinating Board since 2005, I am not at all shocked by the content of the Op-Ed submitted by William "Bill" Steele. I am more surprised of the source – Bill Steele. Almost everything written by Mr. Steele was spot-on.

The only thing I would really disagree with is the statement that we now have a well run Government Agency at SVTA. SVTA is far from that.

The current interim Administrator, Teresa Fortner, is a part of the problem that created the mess at SVTA in the first place. Ms. Fortner is a very nice lady, but is not qualified to run an agency such as the SVTA. If Ms. Fortner were the best candidate for the Administrator's job then she should have been hired before, instead of Gwen Pra.

There are others far more qualified than Ms. Fortner to finish cleaning up the mess inherited by Ms. Pra. Ms. Fortner has worked at SVTA since 1995 and therefore was hired and trained by the creators of this mess, Jimmy Swisher and Ron Williams.

My opinion is that Ms. Fortner not be given the Administrator's job by default, but that the SVTA Board go out and recruit someone with executive skills, training and experience. Fellow LCB member Matt Pearson, from the Suwannee River Economic Council, might be an excellent candidate to run the SVTA.

Without proper leadership the SVTA will surely collapse. Half a dozen drivers quit already. It is tough to recruit drivers in this area. Low pay and a reputation of poor management will not attract quality employees. I would not work for the SVTA for any amount.


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

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Related Links:

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Former Suwannee Valley TA Operations Director: Team SVTA Accomplished Its Mission
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