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Jim Tait 02/01-02/28/17

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January 19, 2018

1/12/2018 7:30:00 AM
Latest transit commission updates elicit mixed feelings
Evan J. pretzer/lakeland timesThe transit commission was seeking funding for these new buses during its meeting with Oneida County officials Monday.
Evan J. pretzer/lakeland times

The transit commission was seeking funding for these new buses during its meeting with Oneida County officials Monday.
Evan J. pretzer/lakeland timesFrom left, transit commission members Erv Teichmiller, Bob Mott and Bill Freudenberg discuss matters with Oneida County officials while Rich and Carrie Linzmeier of StarGazer Limousine Service LLC look on from the crowd.
Evan J. pretzer/lakeland times

From left, transit commission members Erv Teichmiller, Bob Mott and Bill Freudenberg discuss matters with Oneida County officials while Rich and Carrie Linzmeier of StarGazer Limousine Service LLC look on from the crowd.

Evan J. Pretzer
Lakeland Times reporter

Members of the commission which oversees public transportation in the Northwoods gave good news and revealed some challenging developments during a meeting with officials in Oneida County's administration and labor relations committees Monday.

For a number of months, the Vilas-Oneida Transit Commission (VOTC) and Northwoods Transit Connections (NTC) have been mired in financial difficulty and received criticism from some in the public for a perceived competition with private transportation services.

Last year, The Lakeland Times reported on information received in November 2017 which ultimately revealed NTC used loopholes and unwittingly ignored government regulations to expand its services in the Minocqua area. On Dec. 11, 2017, the VOTC went to Oneida County officials and asked for $75,000 in additional funds from each of the two counties they serve, much to the annoyance of Oneida County supervisor Ted Cushing.

"If this committee had known then (when the VOTC was created) what we now know, the resolution to create NTC may never have passed," he said at the time. "If this was a private company, it'd be bankrupt and in receivership."

Upon the conclusion of this meeting, officials directed the transit commission to come back in the future with better business plans and ideas on how to cooperate with local transportation providers.

Since then, there has been some progress.

Finances managed

Going forward, VOTC and NTC will have individuals in place who will keep a tighter eye on expenses and revenues.

Towards the end of last year, the group held discussions on appointing a fiscal manager from within the Oneida County government. At the time, the proposed position was to have powers similar to an Oneida County account clerk - meaning they could handle billing and edit documents - and the commission was debating whether the new hire would be given more authority.

Now, it's settled.

Speaking to the committees, commission vice chairman Bob Mott walked them through the plan for tighter financial monitoring they intend to put into action.

"What we're going to do is this," Mott said. "For about a quarter of the year, on a weekly basis, Joel Gottsacker and Maria Cox from the (Oneida County) Department on Aging are going to sit down and oversee our budget process at transit. They're going to devote up to 7.5 hours per week in a contracted fashion to work with our office manager."

While in place, the pair will develop a set of guidelines and procedures which the commission would then follow no matter who is working at the organization in the future.

In Mott's view, having the extra eyes on numbers will lead to less chance of late year service reductions ever happening again.

"It's going to make a difference," he said to the committee members.

Business battles

After this matter was highlighted, committee member Billy Fried took the discussion in another direction, choosing to revisit the tensions mentioned in the past between NTC and StarGazer Limousine Service LLC and DISCAB Taxi in Minocqua.

"The fiscal manager is a step in the right direction," Fried said. "But my concerns and questions come from representing people or businesses in this county. Over the last few meetings, some private businesses were very concerned about being ran out of business. Last time I mentioned maybe the private businesses working with the commission and there could be a complementary relationship. Has there been any discussion on this?"

In response, transit commission chairman Erv Teichmiller stated plans were in place to have a meeting between NTC director Jim Altenburg and private companies set up by the 15th and - contrary to fears - it would not be the goal of the commission to run others out of business.

"We don't want to hurt them," he said. "But there will be some competition and we can't deny this. We present to you our whole books because we're a government entity. In order to do a fair comparison, I'd like to have their books sit on the table as well. I don't know if they're close to going out of business. I'm told that and I'm not disbelieving them, but I have no evidence this is the case. So, you need to weigh the accusations against us because they simply may not be fair or accurate. Let's throw all the books on the table and see how everyone does."

StarGazer Limousine Service LLC owners Rich and Carrie Linzmeier spoke out and had harsh words for Teichmiller's earlier comments.

"He's got a lot of nerve," Rich Linzmeier said. "To say he doesn't know is not true. Jim Altenburg visited our facility. Don't say you're not affecting us because you are. If the model doesn't change, our business will be shut down."

"I'm offended," Carrie Linzmeier said. "We have experience and could help, but other than coming to our shop, no one has ever reached out."

Funding buses

Once the pair made their comments and left the room, Teichmiller turned the chat to another area of concern ,specifically, new buses for the service and how to pay for them.

A few months ago, a contractor with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation delivered three new buses to the offices of the VOTC without prior notice.

Though covered by transit commission insurance as of Jan. 1, the group also has to fully pay off two of the vehicles before they can use them, when initially it was thought each only needed a 20 percent payment and the matter may yet need to be clarified by the DOT.

"We'd like to bring to you a request for you and Vilas to assist us in purchasing the buses," Teichmiller said. "We discovered we were obligated to have all of the cost of those new buses, and not just the 20 percent. We have recruited some donors, but we can't go to the bank to borrow the balance. We're asking for $112,000 ($56,000 each) in a temporary and short term arrangement. You buy the buses, the grant pays you back and then we pay you back."

Once more, supervisor Ted Cushing was annoyed at this latest request for money and the actions related to it.

"If something happens to those, who is liable?" he asked. "This all bothers me, I can't believe nobody knew the buses were coming, it is a travesty in my opinion."

Ultimately, officials took no action on the requests presented and concluded the meeting by calling for more information from the commission about its issues.

"We all want this to succeed," administration committee chairman Dave Hintz said. "We want to make sure this thing works, but have strong concerns. Questions need to be answered, we back transit, but it has to be ran the right way."

Evan J. Pretzer may be reached via email at evan@lakelandtimes.com.

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