Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

May 25, 2011

State: OTA exaggerated rider numbers

Former union official says drivers complained about timesheet changes

MARK NEWMAN and MATT MILNER
Courier Staff Writers

OTTUMWA — The state auditor’s office has determined the city’s transit system overstated ridership “by an estimated 50 percent,” and that the inflated numbers were increased by office staff on the instructions of Director Pam Ward (Click here).

The audit also mentions complaints that OTA changed drivers’ timesheets to reduce overtime (Click here). Ward said had OTA done so, the union would have filed a grievance. A former union steward says he did, and that Ward is lying about never getting complaints about the practice.

The state audit, released Wednesday morning, only covers fiscal 2010. The auditors concluded documents showing rider numbers in fiscal 2009 and earlier were destroyed by the Ottumwa Transit Authority (Click here).

The report says this was done on Ward’s orders, and that daily numbers were boosted by round numbers like 50 or 100 riders.

Susan Battani, a director within the office’s financial audit division, said the consistent increases by round numbers “is not statistical.” (Click here to view the full audit)

“In an example we had it was 100 [riders] every day for a month. In a couple [days] there were 50,” said Battani.

Ward said Wednesday the increases were because OTA was using a statistical analysis to get an accurate picture of true ridership numbers (Click here).

“Iowa transit authorities may use either actual passenger counts or a statistical analysis, but not a combination of both methods. We were unaware of that and we have implemented changes to our reporting procedures at this time. We will also be making adjustments as requested by the Iowa DOT,” said Ward.

She continued, saying the analysis was begun in response to a drop in rider numbers as reported by drivers.

“A ride is to be recorded as any time an individual steps onto a bus. And I believe that was what we were doing, prior to a significant drop in the data being turned in by the drivers. So we felt we did our duty reporting this to the board and to the state and when we received, as I said, no comment ... we moved forward,” Ward said.

Auditors reject OTA’s explanation, saying it makes little sense.

“Regardless of whether OTA was performing a statistical analysis, they had actual counts,” Battani said. “Actual is actual. Why would you inflate an actual number?”

Ward expressed concern about the allegation she directed employees to inflate numbers. She would not speculate on why employees said that to auditors, but suggested it could have been a misinterpretation on the part of state interviewers talking to employees.

“I guess it does worry me. I don’t know that that was factual. Just because a statement was made does not mean that it was interpreted correctly by the person hearing the statement or that the statement was made,” Ward said.

Battani said her office stands by its conclusion.

The ridership numbers are critical to the Ottumwa Transit Authority because they help determine how much money OTA receives from state and federal sources.

The report also alleges employees who worked overtime had their time sheets adjusted downward (Click here).

“If arbitrary changes had been made to reduce hourly pay for these individuals, a grievance would surely have been filed immediately. No grievances were filed and there were no complaints filed,” Ward said (Click here).

She later directly denied any such action to reduce overtime.

But Bill Musgrove, a former steward for Teamsters Local 238, which covers OTA drivers, says such grievances were a routine part of his job.

“I was chief steward at the time and I filed several,” he said. “I would have drivers come to me and say ‘I didn’t get my pay.’ A lot of times I would go in and say, ‘This is wrong.’”

Musgrove said timesheets were repeatedly altered to reduce or eliminate driver overtime. Drivers would find out about the changes when they received paychecks that came up short.

If there were concerns about whether the timesheets were accurate, Musgrove says OTA should have called in the driver and gone over the concerns. That didn’t happen. Drivers usually got the pay back when Musgrove complained.

“It started way back when and we would constantly tell them, ‘You can’t do this,’” he said. “That’s a pretty serious thing.”

The Ottumwa Transit Authority could lose significant funding if state and federal agencies decide it inflated ridership numbers and received more money than it really deserved. Ward said a complete withdrawal of funding would likely cripple OTA, but she declined to speculate how less radical reductions might be handled.

“I’m not in a position today to say what changes are going to be made. I will say that  there are likely going to be impacts felt by the customers and staff, though I don’t know exactly what those are going to be,” she said.

The state also questioned the decision to use Ward Construction, a company owned by Pam Ward’s husband to install a floor. While OTA insists the contract was proper, auditors say the failure to publicly bid the contract and gain board approval prior to work beginning raise serious questions (Click here).

“Iowa code is specific in that to avoid the potential conflict of interest ... it has to be competitively bid. And it was not competitively bid. In fact, we couldn’t find where the board approved it,” Battani said.

OTA maintains Ward Construction gave the city a cheaper rate than what might have otherwise been received (Click here).