CATS announces additional financial concern as advocates call for board firings

CATS announces additional financial concern as advocates call for board firings
Photo provided by staff

POSTED: Monday, July 22, 2013 - 8:03pm

UPDATED: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 - 10:55am

Together Baton Rouge called for members of the CATS board to resign Monday because of their failure to lead, hours before the transit agency announced the potential loss of more than $100,000.

Together Baton Rouge called on the Metro Council to remove the leadership of the CATS board, specifically chairman Isaiah Marshall. The organization, which was largely responsible for convincing voters to approve a special tax in 2012 to fund the transit agency, said enough time had passed to judge Marshall as unfit for the job.

"We said that, from here on out, we would have a new level of expectation about the quality of leadership and governance of our public system," Edgar Cage stated.

"The leadership of our transit system has fallen far short of the excellence that is the expectation we deserve."

The tax approved by voters increased CATS' budget from $9.6 million to $23.7 million. CATS claimed it would increase the number of routes from 19 to 37, and transition from a hub-and-spoke system to a grid system. The number of buses would rise from 33 to 57, while the average wait time would drop from 75 minutes to 20 or less.

Those changes were projected to be completed by the first quarter of 2014, but Together Baton Rouge said that deadline is no longer realistic.

"Time has expired," according to Lee Wesley. "So some of that's going to have to be reworked. And we don't want to push them to fulfill those commitments, and the necessary background work has not been done in order to make it happen."

Wesley said betrayal was too strong a word to describe his feelings about the CATS board.

"Initially, the board of CATS was committed to implementing what was included in the tax, and improving the system," he said. "It is unfortunate, however, that the leadership just was not in place to make it happen."

Interim CEO Robert Mirabito said Thursday that CATS has ordered several new buses, as well as new shelters, which will arrive early in 2014.

He refused to comment on the future of any board members, but he announced the agency's second financial mess of the past week.

Earlier this month, an employee mentioned that there had been large discrepancies recently between the amount of money recorded by fare box scanners compared to cash reported by manual counters.

Mirabito said received data a week ago that showed potential losses since 2010 of $101,860.

The company that makes the fare box scanning software said a variance of less than one percent is expected. But in eight of the last nine months, the variance was greater than four percent. If there was no irregularity, the variances should be both positive and negative, and roughly cancel each other out in the long term. But only three of the 42 months studied by CATS resulted in positive variances.

Mirabito said he launched an investigation to determine if the fare box hardware is the cause, if the software was faulty, or if an employee had stolen the money.

Last week, board member Montrell McCaleb resigned shortly after it was discovered that $1,484 had been taken from a CATS payroll account to pay McCaleb's phone and television bills.

A handful of CATS riders said they did not care about the financial mismanagement; all that mattered was whether or not their bus arrived on time. Others took a more aggressive stance.

"They need to boycott against [CATS], file petitions against it," Ronald Singleton stated. "We need to come together and just fight, fight, fight for what we're supposed to have out here."

Singleton wants to know why the new shelters and buses have not arrived already. He feels that CATS' management has no idea what it is like to actually use the system.

"Get some of the head people to come out here and see exactly what's going on," he suggested, "instead of holding meetings and talking about stuff they think is going on.

"I think it would change a lot, if they got a heart."

Together Baton Rouge believes heart is less the issue than experience. None of the members of the CATS board had previous transit experience before they took their positions.

"We are not calling for the resignation of all board members," Cage said. "But we do have serious questions about whether the current leadership of the CATS board can remain in place without damaging the long-term credibility of CATS." 

Cage and Wesley said Marshall pushed for Mirabito to get the interim CEO position. They praised Mirabito's business background, but said that in order for him to be successful, the company hired to be CATS' program manager would need extensive transit experience. The request for proposal process for that job was canceled earlier in July. Cage and Wesley said Marshall led a charge for a company that had no transit experience, while the other contenders had extensive transit experience.

Mirabito said the RFP process would be re-opened later this week. The same companies, as well as any others, may apply.

Singleton doubted that the CATS board could fix itself, let alone the entire system.

"Will they listen?" he asked ."That's the main thing. They need to listen and try to work with us to help make that change."

Wesley said his group would give the Metro Council some time to remove Marshall and put in tougher standards for future board members.

"We look forward to these steps being taken within the next 60 days so that we can finally build a transit system which our community deserves, and for which we have taken such a strong and historic stand," he said.

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