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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

County Might Withhold Bus Agency Funds

Transportation: SCAT's mishandling of surplus last year is latest sign of trouble.

October 24, 2000|CATHERINE BLAKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The county Transportation Commission is threatening to withhold $1.6 million from the west county's bus agency because it spent a $108,000 budget surplus in 1999 instead of crediting the money to local cities for future use.

The handling of the surplus underscores concerns some city officials have long held about the bus agency's ability to manage its money.

Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, said Monday that South Coast Area Transit (SCAT) did not intentionally misuse the surplus, but instead misunderstood a complicated accounting system.

"I don't want to imply they were misleading [the cities], just that the staff has not filed properly," Gherardi said. "These are serious technical problems that need to be addressed."

No money will be withheld from the bus agency--which serves Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Ojai--if it makes necessary accounting changes during the next month, Gherardi said.

The bus agency filed conflicting documents that failed to give cities credit for the $108,000 surplus in 1998-99, and then used the money for operational expenses in 1999-2000.

"I think there was a difference in interpretation of how the deferred income can be treated," said Dolores Dowdle, director of administrative services for SCAT.

She said the bus agency intends to clear up the problem immediately.

But some city officials said the mistake compounded their distrust of SCAT's ability to make sound financial decisions.

"This shows a lack of understanding about fiscal responsibility and how the money should be used," said Tom Mericle, transportation engineer for Ventura. "It is just another thing in a pile of reasons that make us concerned about SCAT. If you have SCAT doing things like this without knowing it, then it leads to a feeling of: What else are they doing without telling us?"

Even before this matter came to light, Ventura and Oxnard authorized a $40,000 audit of the bus agency's budget. Ventura has considered starting a bus service for senior citizens that it says would cost the city less to finance than SCAT does.

Port Hueneme Councilwoman Toni Young, the bus agency chairwoman, said she thought the Transportation Commission was acting more harshly than needed.

"Threatening to withhold money is inappropriate, while asking them to comply is fine," she said. "They should have been given more time to do it."

The Transportation Commission will forward to the bus agency this month about $800,000 from the state. If accounting problems are not resolved, the commission will withhold similar payments in both November and December, Gherardi said. At that time bus service could be affected.

Kathy Connell, transportation analyst for the county, said she was disappointed in the bus agency.

"This is the same mistake we have had running for 10 years," she said. "We are supportive of having a good transportation system. But as far as the internal financial dealings, we have always had problems."

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