PA: Commissioners Hesitant on CAT Funding Agreement

July 17--CARLISLE -- An inter-county agreement is in the works that could help resolve a funding dispute between Capital Area Transit and the Cumberland County commissioners -- but the commissioners aren't yet sold on the agreement.

The commissioners had previously frozen their contribution to CAT at the 2013 total of $319,324, and warned they would likely not increase funding unless a formal agreement was developed and signed by Cumberland County, Dauphin County and Harrisburg. There had been a formal funding agreement until 2011, when a revised agreement did not receive formal approval due to Harrisburg's financial problems.

Staff from the three entities have now developed a draft agreement that retains and clarifies the funding formula. In the wake of alleged missed payments by Harrisburg, it also states that all three entities will be immediately notified of future nonpayments.

The commissioners seemed generally comfortable with that language, but were more concerned with what wasn't included. They wanted a requirement that CAT provide periodic data on the intended use of funds, a capital improvement plan, and information on cost-containment efforts.

Commissioner Barbara Cross said she doesn't think that requirement is inflicting a hardship on an agency responsible for taxpayer dollars.

"When we have, for the last year, aggressively gone to everyone in our county for cost-containment, why would we accept, then, a practice that doesn't ... conform to that?" Cross asked.

Chief Clerk Larry Thomas said receiving that information is particularly important given concerns about several financial issues related to CAT, including their plan to build an $80 million maintenance facility, ongoing negotiations between CAT and its employee union, and what he sees as a tendency by CAT to make urgent last-minute funding requests without providing significant documentation.

"These matters of looking into ways to contain costs, and some of these other issues that we brought up ... need to be addressed before CAT goes on a building binge with some expensive new facility," commissioner Jim Hertlzer said.

Planning Director Kirk Stoner said Dauphin County and the City of Harrisburg also are convinced of the need for CAT to be financially responsible, but would prefer that Cumberland County sign their own memorandum of understanding regarding the information they are requesting rather than including it in a formal financial agreement.

Commissioner Gary Eichelberger was puzzled by that response.

"It just strikes me in principle as a little odd, because it seems to me your accountability standards and your (guidelines regarding) funding are inextricably linked, and they should be institutionalized in the same agreement," Eichelberger said. "I'm a little baffled why the other partners wouldn't feel that way as well."

Still, Stoner said he thinks it is likely that CAT will agree to sign a memorandum with the county agreeing to provide the information the county requested, and he agreed to draft a memorandum in the next two weeks. Hertlzer also suggested the commissioners send a letter to their political counterparts in Harrisburg urging them to include that information in the funding agreement.

The proposed funding agreement would cover a five-year period, but Thomas recommended the commissioners approve it on an annual basis to help ensure that CAT does not become complacent in cost-containment efforts.

He said it will also be important for the commissioners to make sure their commissioner-appointed representatives to CAT's board convey the county's message of cost containment at board meetings. Getting CAT and its board to become committed to cost containment will be likely be a "protracted struggle," he said.

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