IN: Everybody Counts Contests Use of RBA Funds

June 05--The disability-rights agency Everybody Counts is questioning why a local planning agency took $506,207 earned by a defunct bus system serving Hammond and distributed the bulk of it to bus providers in South Lake and Porter County.

The disability-rights agency has been seeking answers for months and charges that NIRPC has been seeking to silence them on the issue.

"When confronted with this issue, rather than owning up to the problem and dealing with it, they get in attack mode and say don't ask any questions," said Teresa Torres, executive director of Everybody Counts.

NIRPC officials admit they were faced with an unusual situation when the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority went out of business in July 2012. That's because the bus agency was still "owed" more than $1 million from the state's Public Mass Transportation Fund earned for its service in Hammond.

"We want all our transit operators to succeed," said NIRPC Executive Director Tyson Warner this week. "We don't want any transit operator to succeed at the expense of another."

Warner and other NIRPC officials contend the agency followed the Indiana Department of Transportation's direction on how to distribute the funds. Warner noted he was not employed at NIRPC at the time. He started as executive director at the beginning of 2013.

But Torres has obtained email exchanges concerning the funds between INDOT and NIRPC under an Access to Public Records request. Those emails, exchanged in 2012 after the RBA went out of business, contain no direction from INDOT as to what agencies should get the RBA funds. Instead, they are merely queries that urge NIRPC to act on distributing the money so it will not be lost to the region.

NIRPC attorney David Hollenbeck in a letter this year to Torres acknowledges a lack of written direction and states the instructions from INDOT were verbal. In addition, he cites an e-mail from an INDOT official sent in response to Torres' questions this year. The official states his agency instructed NIRPC to distribute the 2013 funds for demand-response bus service in the region.

NIRPC ended up splitting the $506,267 due the RBA for 2013 equally between four demand-response bus providers that receive money from the same state fund through NIRPC, according to NIRPC Transit Planner Belinda Petroskey. Those were South Lake County Community Services, Opportunity Enterprises, Porter County Aging and Community Services and North Township.

Only one of those four, North Township, was helping provide rides for people left stranded by the RBA. Two are located in Porter county and one mainly operates south of Lake County's urban core.

Former Lake County Sheriff and Everybody Counts board member Roy Dominguez, in a column published in The Times on May 15, highlighted how the bulk of the funds earned by the RBA were shifted out of Hammond.

Dominguez cited what he called a "historical lack of transparency" at NIRPC and pointed out there was no way for the public to comment or even know much of the money was being shifted out of Hammond.

NIRPC appropriated the money to the four demand-response providers as part of its 2013 budget process, where it was part of the Public Mass Transit Funding distribution for the entire region. There was no way to tell that money earned by the RBA had been shifted out of Hammond.

Later in 2013, Gary Public Transportation Corp. came to NIRPC and told them state funds due the RBA in 2014 would be better spent on its own fixed-route bus service in Hammond, Petroskey said. GPTC was also planning to replace some of the RBA routes with new ones.

A case was also made for East Chicago Transit to receive some of the funds. Those bus agencies usually get their own Public Mass Transportation Fund money directly from INDOT.

A memorandum was drawn up so that all money earned by the RBA for its Hammond service and due in 2014 would go to GPTC and East Chicago. The two agencies will also receive any funds still owed the RBA in 2015, the last year of the funding cycle.

Last week, GPTC started up a new Lakeshore South bus route in Hammond that combines several former RBA routes there. It hopes to build ridership on the route to more than 40,000 per month.

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