PINELLAS PARK — The director of the county's bus system failed for months to tell board members of a dispute with a cab company that provides transportation to the disabled.
Members of the Pinellas Suncoast Transportation Board were finally told of the situation in January, when it appeared a lawsuit was imminent.
"We actually were trying to work out this issue," PSTA director Tim Garling said Friday. When it became apparent that the behind-the-scenes negotiations were not working, Garling said he decided it was time to tell the board and present them with suggestions for resolving the matter.
At issue were millions in tax money over the course of a five-year contract with Clearwater Yellow Cab.
Garling said he became aware of problems with the Yellow Cab contract soon after its Oct. 1 start date when the company started sending its first bills.
The bills were for the entire cost of each cab ride, or $9.05. PSTA had expected the company to bill $5.55 for most rides, which was the cost minus a $3.50 co-pay from the passenger. Yellow Cab had kept the co-pay and expected to receive the full cost of the ride as well.
The difference doesn't sound like much, but with an estimated 228,000 rides a year, it adds up to $798,000 in a year, or more than $3 million over the course of five years.
Garling said he paid the invoice, but told Yellow Cab he expected to have that amount prorated in future bills once the situation was worked out. But staff members were not able to resolve the issue with the cab company. Garling called in the board's attorney. During negotiations, Yellow Cab's attorney allegedly threatened that his client would walk off the job if the full amount wasn't paid. So Garling continued to pay the full bill, which was averaged out to about $66,500 more per month than PSTA had budgeted.
Garling also did not tell board members that he was paying the full amount of disputed invoices.
The first board members heard of the dispute was in January in a memo from their board attorney. Board members also received a second memo from the attorney in February.
Garling said he failed to immediately tell board members of the dispute because he thought it would be worked out. Then, when it became apparent that the situation would not resolve itself, he waited until he could present three options to his board: Pay the full amount. Terminate the contract and hire the next higher bidder, whose bid was millions higher than Yellow Cab's. Or terminate the contract and rebid it.
Last month, the PSTA board chose the third option. Last Wednesday, board members reversed themselves by deciding to retain Yellow Cab and working out a payment arrangement that has PSTA and Yellow Cab splitting the $3.50.
At least one PSTA board member, Julie Ward Bujalski, vice mayor of Dunedin, said she was not happy that Garling did not inform board members earlier of the dispute. She was even unhappier that she did not realize Garling was paying the full amount of disputed invoices until she read about it in the St. Petersburg Times.
Bujalski said she's not sure Garling had the authority to make those payments without board approval. But even if he did, Bujalski said, board members should have been told earlier about the dispute.
Garling said that one of the attorney's memos did mention the amount of the payments. And, he said, his whole goal was to make sure disabled people continued to get good service without interruption.
Bujalski said that's a good intention, but the issue isn't service quality. It's a matter, she said, of accountability and transparency to board members and to taxpayers.