Under the Bus - WMBF Investigates controversy at Coast RTA

Under the Bus: Coast RTA

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - The head of Coast RTA has been running the area's only mass transit system for nearly 10 years now. And for nearly 10 years, he has had to endure the wrath from an army of critics who, at best, want to see a more efficient system, and at worst, want him gone. Despite the agency's successes, Myers Rollins has made the attacks against him almost too easy for those critics.

To be clear: mass transit in South Carolina, no matter what city you're in, is not a profitable business. It's the opposite. Coast RTA's budget of $5 million per year comes from local, state and federal taxpayers. Less than 20 percent is made up from the fares paid by those who use the system.

Even Coast RTA's most ardent critic agree that it would be catastrophic if a community like the Grand Strand had no mass transit. However, they want it run better, more efficiently, and cheaper when it comes to salaries at the top. To better understand Coast RTA's current problems, a look back at the program's history is in order.

Ten years ago, the Grand Strand's only mass transit system was $750,000 in the red, teetering on bankruptcy, with too many employees, too many buses, and too many unfunded routes. Employees had no healthcare, no paid vacation, and many were making less than minimum wage. Its CEO at the time had just been indicted for public corruption and was sent to prison. It was not going to be a smooth ride for the next leader, but Myers Rollins knew what he was stepping into.

"The reality is that I think that one of my challenges moving forward is to continue to do a better job telling that transportation story," Rollins said.

Rollins has now been in the role for nearly a decade. Perhaps as expected, criticism of "his" performance has snowballed during most of that tenure.

Horry County councilman Gary Loftus is no fan of Myers Rollins. He says he has watched the Coast RTA CEO mismanage project after project. Given the county is the single largest local contributor of tax dollars to the agency, more than a million dollars a year, Loftus is ready for a change.

"I'm convinced that there's people out there that are go-getters, that are more than willing to do the job for less," Loftus insisted. As for whether Rollins is being paid too much for the job he's doing, "I would say relative to the income they have and the number of employees, yes."

As an example, Loftus draws a simple comparison between Myers Rollins and the county administrator. Both make the same salary, with perks: more than $150,000 a year. The county administrator oversees about 2,000 employees and is responsible for a $150 million budget. Myers Rollins oversees about 80 people and handles a budget of about $5 million.

"The expectation is that I bring a unique skill set," Rollins said. "You need to have prior transit experience to take on the multitude of challenges that face you, and I would say that salary is earned every single day."

Rollins has turned this agency back from the brink of disaster during his tenure. He's run a budget surplus for the last seven years, leads the state in ridership growth year to year, got the employees health insurance, holidays, and even into the state retirement plan.

But then there were the missteps along the way. The first, and perhaps costliest, has been the bus shelters plan. Rollins won a federal grant to install more than 50 shelters around the county. A few did go up, but then the wheels fell off. The plan stalled, and the state has now shut down the program.

Rollins insists the shelter project will move forward. County Commissioners, including Mark Lazarus, aren't convinced.

"Not from the letter that I read. It was straight from SCDOT. It said do not touch the shelters," Lazarus said. "'Leave 'em where they are. We're coming to take inventory and we're gonna take possession of them.' I don't know how much more clear that can be."

Through a freedom of information request, WMBF News obtained a copy of that letter. It did make clear that the project was terminated. Rollins isn't giving up on the shelters, or the taxpayers' half-million dollars hanging in the balance.

"I really believe that the window's open for further communication and dialogue on this issue," Rollins said.

"We made a decision to terminate the project," said Doug Frate with SCDOT. "And so at that point, the decision was made that we had realized that there was a lack of sufficient activity, and a lack of sufficient response to our concerns."

Coast RTA board chairman Bernie Silverman insists the shelter delays are a shared responsibility.

"The reasons they're not up is: years of zoning requirements, years of permitting that we have not been able to get through, years of changes, years of DOT not allowing us to do certain roadways because of access or egress or power lines or whatever," Silverman said.

Another lightning rod for Rollins' critics involves plans for a multi-modal transportation center to be built in Myrtle Beach. The plan got state and federal funding approval, and then Rollins spent more than $70,000 on a consultant without SCDOT approval, meaning the money will not be reimbursed.

Was this a case of mismanagement, or perhaps a mistake Rollins and his staff will know better than to make the next time?

"Well, first of all, we're not in the business to make mistakes and try to learn. We're beyond that," Lazarus said. "These are professionals, and they shouldn't be making these mistakes."

That transportation center is also on hold due to what Rollins calls confusion over the terms of the grant money. Back in 2012, he was cited by the State Ethics Commission for failing to turn in his annual economic interest reports for three straight years. It turns out Rollins was filling them out, but a staff member wasn't turning them in.

"And here's the difference today," Rollins said, "I file the report myself."

The state withdrew the $9,000 fine against Rollins, but the hits keep coming. Last year, Coast RTA's contract with Coastal Carolina University expired, and the school decided to bring on its own, in-house transportation system.

"We know that if our drivers are not on time, we have the authority to do something about that," explained CCU's Stacy Bouy. "So, that's where the reliability comes in. We also can send a bus full of students to do beach clean-up. Where, because the Coast is public transportation, we were not allowed to, 'charter them or their buses to use it for another purpose.'"

That decision took a 50-percent chunk of Coast RTA's ridership, yet nothing changed with respect to salaries or employee numbers. Rollins said the change simply allowed him to redirect resources, including new service between the airport and hotels, and a fixed route service in Conway for the first time ever.

But, efficiency is king in the transportation business, and many in the county don't believe Rollins deserves the crown.

The average mass transit system in South Carolina recovers 40 percent of its operating costs with what it collects from riders. Coast RTA's average right now is less than half that.

"We aren't asking it to make money," said Horry County councilman Gary Loftus. "We're just asking it to be as efficient as it can possibly be so we contribute less money, or at least get a bigger bang for our buck."

"We do have skin in the game, and with having that skin in the game, and we're getting no results, we're just throwing money out the window, and that's not fair to the people, because that is tax dollars," Lazarus added.

"They should look at us," said Coast RTA chairman Silverman. "We're spending their money. So, they have a right to look at us and judge us. When you look at a bus company that's running eight routes and seven days a week and 18 or 20 hours a day, and they're running on time, look at Myers Rollins. That's fair."

No one is speculating how much longer Myers Rollins can continue to absorb the hits he's taking, fair or not.

Rollins' contract with the Coast RTA board expires in August. He's hoping for another five-year term because he says there's a lot of work left to do. One of those goals is getting buses running to the major tourist attractions in the Grand Strand, and getting 14 million tourists out of their cars and into public transportation.

The greatest threat to Myers Rollins and Coast RTA right now is a committee recently set up by the Horry County Council. The council wants a complete review of Rollins' efforts to streamline the agency before it agrees to give the board another dime. Withholding that county money would be devastating, as Horry County is the single largest contributor to Coast RTA at more than a million dollars a year.

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