August 23, 2012After more than a decade as the executive director of the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation (PART), Brent McKinney is stepping down from his position with the agency that has faced budgetary problems for years, that lost federal funding last year due to accounting regularities, and that, most recently, was dealt another financial blow with the bankruptcy of one of PART's service providers.
In a closed session at a Wednesday, August 8 PART board meeting, McKinney announced he was retiring. He made that news public on Thursday, August 16.
At the August 8 meeting, a new PART controversy arose. Some board members expressed dissatisfaction that they were, at that meeting, finding out for the first time that a large-bus service provider for PART, Coach America, had declared bankruptcy, and there would be ramifications for PART's budget. The company that purchased Coach America was raising the rate it charged PART, which was already struggling financially.
Coach America declared bankruptcy in January, and board members wanted to know why they were hearing in August that it would mean a significant increase in PART's costs.
Myra Thompson, who heads up Guilford County's transportation services, a division of the county's Department of Social Services, said PART board members at the meeting had a lot of questions for McKinney about the situation.
At that meeting, some PART board members said they felt McKinney hadn't kept them adequately informed about the Coach America situation and about the negotiations for PART's contract for large buses that Coach America had been handling.
"They did seem upset about Coach America," Thompson said of some board members.
Thompson isn't on the board and she wasn't in the closed session. However, she was at the meeting as the person in charge of Guilford County's transportation services. The county contracts with PART to provide the transportation services the county is required to provide its citizens.
McKinney's last day as director will be Jan. 31, 2013.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman represents Guilford County on the PART board, and she was in the executive session when McKinney made his announcement.
"He told us it was time for another chapter in his life," she said.
One board member who was in the closed session said McKinney asked that the board not say anything until McKinney had time to inform PART staff of his decision.
Since his resignation happened at a time when some board members were displeased with the Coach America situation, and his resignation came in the wake of constant budget shortfalls and the 2011 loss of federal funding, there was some speculation that board members may have asked McKinney to step down. But – surprisingly given all the problems at PART over the last year – several sources said that wasn't the case and said McKinney was leaving of his own accord.
Coleman said the board was prepared for an announcement of this type.
"We've talked about a succession plan for some time," she said.
McKinney also said the resignation was his decision entirely and he had no pressure from board members to step down.
He said there was a simple reason he was leaving. "I'm 65," he said, adding that there were other things in his life he wanted to accomplish.
McKinney said he felt the organization, since its start in 1997, had done a good job of getting all the key participants together at the table and, he said, PART had also created a strong infrastructure for public transportation in central North Carolina, including establishing 23 park-and-ride lots.
McKinney added, however, that PART faces many obstacles.
"It's not flourishing," he said. "It's not well-funded."
At the August 8 meeting, McKinney informed the PART board that the cost of the bus service Coach America had been providing would be increasing from $75 per service hour to $95 per service hour.
McKinney said he had been in negotiations and had been exploring various options. He said a lot of the information about the rate increase was about as new to him as it was to the board.
It's not the first time the PART board has had questions for McKinney and his staff. PART lost federal funding in 2011 due to accounting irregularities. The August 8 meeting, in fact, was the first board meeting since a Wednesday, August 1 letter notified PART that the organization was found to have corrected its accounting deficiencies and was in compliance with federal grant requirements once again.
In addition to problems with federal funding, McKinney has repeatedly come to member counties asking for more money for the organization.
At the Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting, McKinney asked Guilford County for $394,000 to help PART make it through the fiscal year, that began in July 2011. The commissioners voted to give PART the money – something other participating counties didn't do.
Guilford County's willingness to provide the funds might have had something to do with the fact that the county needed PART's help.
At that time, the Board of Commissioners was looking to PART to take over Guilford County's own problem-filled transportation operations.
Guilford County provides taxpayer-funded transportation for residents who need rides to and from work, elderly riders who need transportation to medical appointments, and disabled county residents who have no other means of transportation.
At a Thursday, June 21 Board of Commissioners meeting, McKinney asked the commissioners for another $120,000 to cover a projected shortfall that PART had experienced handling the county's transportation services over the previous eight months. McKinney told the commissioners that PART had miscalculated the cost for providing Guilford County with transportation services.
Coleman said this week that McKinney has been warning PART board members that the organization may still end up $11,000 short for this past fiscal year when the final numbers are all in.
Coleman said that McKinney had also been asking for a license plate tax to bring in more money for PART.
She said that didn't seem to be a popular idea with county citizens.
"It's difficult to just keep taxing people," Coleman said.
McKinney said the PART board had unanimously voted in favor of establishing a license plate fee, but none of the 10 member counties – which, unlike PART, actually have the taxing authority – voted to establish a license plate fee to fund PART in addition to the tax on rental cars and other support from member counties.
Now some Guilford County officials are wondering if the shake up at PART and the Coach America bankruptcy will affect the county's transportation services.
Coleman said she doesn't think the problems at PART will be felt in the county's operations.
The commissioners have not had many complaints about the service since PART took over last fall, but several commissioners said that the organization coming back and asking for $120,000 here and $394,000 there gets old very fast.
Thompson also said she didn't expect the issues with Coach America to hurt Guilford County's services or cost the county money since that aspect of PART's service was independent of the contract with Guilford County.
"They contract with Coach America for big buses," Thompson said. "That's for buses, for instance, when PART goes to Chapel Hill or to different counties."
PART was created to promote as well as oversee bus transportation in the piedmont area. There are similar authorities for each section of the state.
PART serves 10 counties: Alamance, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Guilford, Randolph, Rockingham, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin. The hugely subsidized organization transports citizens between cities and counties in that region and has connections with the area's major city bus routes.
PART was struggling for riders in November of last year when it took over Guilford County's transportation services in the quickly negotiated deal.
At the time McKinney announced he was stepping down, PART was already looking to fill two positions – one human resources position and the vacant assistant director position.
McKinney said that it's highly unlikely the board would fill the assistant director position. He said that position has been on the books since the organization began but has remained vacant all of that time.
McKinney began working for the City of Winston-Salem's Transportation Department when PART began. As part of his duties, he also served as director for PART, with no additional pay.
In 2001, McKinney left his job with Winston-Salem to become PART's full-time executive director. McKinney is the only director the organization has ever had.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Skip Alston has been attending PART meetings on behalf of Guilford County, and he said that it certainly hasn't been a rosy picture for the transportation authority in recent years.
"They've had their problems," Alston said.
Alston also said that, with or without McKinney, some things are going to have to change if PART is to be successful in the long run. Alston said Guilford County has been ponying up money time and time again to fund the organization, but other member counties haven't been so willing.
"Some counties don't give their fair share," Alston said.
He added that Forsyth County had, like Guilford County, been doing its part, but the other member counties need to step up in the funding to secure the future of PART.
"I said that at a meeting," Alston said this week. "I said, 'You're going to have to participate.'"