Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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SVTA Board Should Bring Back the Team That Brought it Back from the Brink of Bankruptcy

Before December 2012, the following agencies and individuals supposedly performed oversight of the Suwannee Valley Transit Authority (SVTA): the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council, Lynn Godfrey and her Local Coordinating Board; the Commission Transportation Disadvantaged (CTD), Steve Holmes, Director; the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), Alana McKay; and the SVTA Board, composed of two commissioners from each of Columbia, Hamilton, and Suwannee Counties. 

Under their combined watch, the SVTA spiraled out of control, resulting in massive failures including: financial debt; violations of state rules and policies mandated for Florida transportation providers; no fleet or property maintenance programs; no professional training; and no System Safety Program Plan (SSPP), to name a few.

The SVTA also paid an employee for over 20 years, despite the fact that he didn't report to work. The SVTA is still paying off a settlement with that employee.

In the last half of 2011, the SVTA Board hired Gwen Pra, a professional transportation expert, as Administrator. Within 30 months, Ms. Pra developed action plans, policies and procedures that transformed SVTA and brought it into full compliance with all state regulations regarding personnel, logistics, security and operations, while achieving every bench marked mandated by the CTD.

When Administrator Gwen Pra came on board the SVTA was $1.8 mil in debt. Financial audits show that within two years the debt was eliminated.                   

Ms. Pra led SVTA’s transformation with a staff whose management to rank and file ratio was the lowest of any government agency in the region. The SVTA had the smallest management staff compared to other transit agencies of similar size and scope. Additionally, the SVTA pay scales for every position were well under the median of similarly structured transit agencies.

Administrator Pra’s success caused the SVTA Chairman, Columbia County Commissioner, Ronald Williams, to constantly proclaim, "The best thing I ever did was to hire Ms. Gwen."

Administrator Pra turned-around the SVTA from its disastrous state with no additional financial help despite CTD and ACHA slashing SVTA funding by $500K in 2011, 12% in 2012 and 10% in 2013. The SVTA showed no debt balance for FY 12-13, and positive cash flow in FY 13-14.

Ms. Pra was successful in spite of being thwarted on several occasions by the Holmes-Godfrey-McKay group and the community gained a well-managed transportation service that met its mission with excellent customer service - all within allocated resources.

Though SVTA wasn’t perfect, in the end, no one, including the malcontents and SVTA bashers can deny the vast improvement made between September 2011 and June 2014. 

With 2015 upon us, the SVTA enters debt. 

Boards blame Medicaid cuts, which were not unexpected. All transportation agencies suffered cuts since 2011. 

While the SVTA Board, CTD and NCFRPC’s LCB saw this coming, only Administrator Pra made efforts to try and get the SVTA to move from its heavy dependence on Medicaid to a public transportation service that would provide transportation to more than just Medicaid beneficiaries.

Her blueprints included public routes in, around, and between all communities in the region. She presented proposals to County Boards as early as 2012. The only responses were like this one from Columbia County's Commissioner Nash, "Public transportation is not only not needed here, but not wanted here."  Despite SVTA receiving calls from non-Medicaid citizens who needed public transit, Boards were not persuaded to even conduct a feasibilitly study.

Now, County Commissions are trying to figure out how to save the SVTA and, in the short run, are throwing cash around. 

In April of this year, the SVTA Board wanted a "new direction" and replaced a productive management team because of a threat made by the CTD to Chairman Williams.

Chairman Williams could have defended the proven success of SVTA, a success that he pointed out at every opportunity. He didn't.

Columbia, Hamilton, and Suwannee Counties now are tossing additional money at the SVTA.

Perhaps, instead of the throwing of cash by those who know little about transportation, citizens should be asking their County Commissions to put back in place those experts who successfully transformed the SVTA from its catastrophic financial state to the successfully running, fully compliant, debt free, highly praised transit authority it was as recently as April 2014.

William "Bill" Steele is the former Operations Director of the SVTA.

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Related Links:

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