NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - In a 3-2 vote Monday, New Hanover County commissioners denied WAVE Transit’s request for a $57,000 subsidy to bridge their financial gap for 2020.
The commissioners voted in October to give WAVE Transit notice the county would be terminating its contract with the public transportation system.
Commissioners Woody White, Pat Kusek, and Julia Boseman voted against the subsidy. Commissioner Rob Zapple and Chair Jonathan Barfield voted in favor of it.
“We were disappointed that we were unable to provide the necessary information for the commissioners to make a decision to allow a supplementary appropriation,” WAVE Executive Director Albert Eby stated in an email following the vote.
“For the seven years that I’ve been a commissioner, I think this is the first time I’ve voted against any request Wave Transit has made,” said New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White.
White said he has repeatedly failed to see the WAVE board come up with solutions to their financial issues.
He noted lower gas prices, low unemployment rates, ride-sharing, and other external forces as making WAVE’s situation worse.
“All of these external forces that are influencing how bad things are for them makes it even more important for them to be innovative and to re-imagine what it is they are trying to do. Instead, all they do, it seems to me anyway, is come back and ask for more money. More money, more money, more money all the time. That’s it. We commissioned a study a couple of years ago. We gave them advice on restricting some of their routes, making them more efficient and faster so maybe more people would choose to ride and it hasn’t worked,” White said.
Zapple, who voted in favor of providing subsidy funding to WAVE under certain conditions, also noted the need for the WAVE board to make significant changes.
"The message you heard today, I think from all the commissioners, is that WAVE needs to tighten up their reporting and where exactly the money is going. We’re an expanding county, we need mass-transit,” Zapple said.
Zapple said he was disappointed that the supplemental funding with conditions outlined in the motion was rejected by three commissioners. Zapple believes those conditions would put WAVE on a path for more clear reporting.
“Unfortunately, not all of our partners share the same vision for transit in the region. This is our biggest challenge. We will continue to advance the vision of our board as we aim to meet the transit demands of a growing community within the subsidies provided by our local, state and federal funding partners,” wrote Eby.
The county has spent more than $421,000 on WAVE Transit services for the 2019 fiscal year.
While county commissioners seemed to agree the WAVE board needs to make major changes, they did not agree on the future of the transit system.
“As a public official, it’s not my job to simply give money away without asking tough questions and if the WAVE Transit folks are not going to ask the tough questions internally, and make the choices that they need to make internally, I’m not going to support throwing money at them any further,” White said.
White said he would like to see the county withdraw completely and let the city take over the transit system, drawing it back from a regional system to a municipal one.
“For folks that have no choice, who can’t afford Uber or Lyft, or [don’t] have a car, we have to have public transportation. We support that. I always have and will continue to. We have to make sure folks can get to the doctor, can get their essential needs if they don’t have other choices in transportation. That is part of a government service. But it’s the other questions that have remained unanswered, and it’s not that we haven’t asked these questions. We’ve been asking them over and over and over for years now and they’ve just been giving the same response,” White said.
Zapple, and WAVE Executive Director Albert Eby both think growing WAVE and expanding coverage area is the solution to their issues.
“We need mass-transit. Our county is expanding population-wise as well as Brunswick County and Pender county as well. The number of cars, 26,000 a day coming over from Brunswick County a day into here, it would be great if we could replace some of those cars or a high percentage of those cars with mass-transit. That’s where our future is going, we can’t ignore it,” Zapple said.
Eby said WAVE’s biggest financial challenge is dedicated funding.
“Wave Transit is solely at the discretion of all of our funding partners when it comes to revenue. At the federal level, the inability of the government to pass a budget not only leaves resource identification and budget planning very challenging but government shutdowns and interruptions in revenue availability leave government agencies like Wave Transit very vulnerable to significant service interruption,” Eby wrote.
WAVE relies on many different entities to pay for transit operations. Zapple believes finding a direct source of funding would help the transit system improve its financial situation.
“Finding a direct funding source of revenue source for WAVE is one of the next major steps forward whether that’s a quarter cents sales tax or a small auto-registration fee. I don’t know, there may be something else out there but nobody can plan a budget without knowing what their revenue source will be and that includes WAVE,” Zapple said.
WAVE officials asked commissioners to consider both a quarter-of-a-cent sales tax increase and a $7 car tax increase as revenue sources.
“It was evident to me when they proposed car taxes and sales tax increases but then they have no plan whatsoever to spend tens of millions of windfall that they would get if those monies were given to them. That indicates to me a lack of leadership, lack of vision, and I hope that board can re-invent itself and figure out what it’s future is,” White said.
WAVE Executive Director Albert Eby’s significant salary increase was brought up various times throughout Monday’s meeting.
“In these financial straits they’ve had they opted to give their executive director a 30 percent pay increase in a year and a half. Why? What performance-based measures did they look at, if any, keeping him here? We could go on and on and on with some of the questions that we have and they’ve been unanswered. We wish them well, we will continue to do what we have to do under our county-government charter, but we can’t continue to throw money at something that’s not working the way it should,” White said.
In 2016, Eby was making $117,000 per year. His current salary is $152,000 per year.
When asked how the board arrived at the decision for such a significant increase in pay, Eby wrote, “the matter was discussed in closed session to which I was not a party. I cannot provide input regarding the question.”
Commission Chair Jonathan Barfield added the increase was in part due to an outside entity trying to hire Eby. Barfield said it would be just as expensive to hire a new transit director.