Pinellas transit agency: Where’s our $600,000?

A Washington-based software company owes PSTA over a year’s worth of passenger fares. The agency is considering legal action
Passengers board the Route 9 PSTA bus at Grand Central Station in St. Petersburg, Florida on Thursday, January 23,  2020.
Passengers board the Route 9 PSTA bus at Grand Central Station in St. Petersburg, Florida on Thursday, January 23, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Dec. 7, 2022|Updated Dec. 7, 2022

Every day, hundreds rely on Pinellas County’s on-demand transportation service for older people and those with disabilities to get around town. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority works with the Washington-based software company GOIN’ to coordinate those rides, including collecting co-pays and working with providers like Uber and Lyft.

But for over a year, the company has held onto passengers’ fares instead of remitting them to the county transportation agency, leaving the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority owed more than $600,000, agency officials said.

Now, PSTA is considering legal action to recoup the funds.

“PSTA has been working with you for months to attempt to resolve this matter,” the agency’s general counsel, Alan S. Zimmet, wrote to the company last month. “At this point, those attempts having been fruitless.”

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, GOIN’ CEO Justin Bergener described PSTA’s characterization of the dispute as “misleading.”

“We’ve had a great relationship with PSTA and have provided a very popular and growing service that saves PSTA significant money,” he said.

Since at least 2017, the Pinellas transit agency has been working with GOIN’ to deploy on-demand paratransit trips from one integrated software platform. PSTA received a grant from the Federal Transit Administration to launch the partnership and develop so-called virtual wallets, streamlining the process of its Americans with Disabilities Act-required service. Think of GOIN’ as the go-between for PSTA, riders and ride providers.

The transit agency pays GOIN’ around $34,500 in license fees per year for access to the software, according to public records.

GOIN’ had been electronically sending passenger fares for completed trips to PSTA on a monthly basis, according to agency spokesperson Stephanie Rank. But the company has not paid as intended since before the pandemic, she said. (The agency suspended fares on all routes from March 2020 through July 2021.)

PSTA chief executive Brad Miller said he first heard the money was missing in October. By then, his team had already spent much of the summer trying to recoup the missing payments, he told the Times.

On Oct. 31, the agency’s procurement director wrote to GOIN’ with a settlement proposal and a PSTA GOIN Mobility Software Action Plan.

Details of the settlement offer remain unclear, but the action plan details demands from the agency to the company, including that GOIN’ transfer all existing customer wallet balances to PSTA or “directly back to customers ASAP,” according to records reviewed by the Times.

On Nov. 11, Zimmet authored a demand letter on behalf of the agency, retracting the October settlement proposal and demanding the full reimbursement of $601,107.09 for the withheld customer fares. “If full payment is not received by PSTA within ten days from the date of this letter, PSTA will be compelled to consider legal action,” he wrote.

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A week later, PSTA’s chief financial officer, Debbie Leous, addressed the agency’s finance committee at their November meeting: “I have heard crickets. There has been no response.”

“The good news is: This vendor isn’t saying ‘I don’t owe you any money,’” she added. But the parties seem to disagree on the severity and the urgency of the matter, she said.

To date, PSTA top executives say the company has acknowledged receipt of the demand letter, but provided little other information.

A presentation slide from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority outlining the Mobility on Demand system in 2019.
A presentation slide from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority outlining the Mobility on Demand system in 2019. [ Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority ]

In September, Bergener said he attempted to wire PSTA $106,000 in customer fare revenue, following the instructions included in an email to Bergener from someone he believed was Shelly Chapko, PSTA’s manager of revenue.

The email directed him to make a payment to a Wells Fargo account in Maryland. PSTA says they have no record of receiving such a payment, they do not operate a Maryland-based Wells Fargo account and that, when Chapko’s email account was reviewed, there was no trace of her sending the email.

“You have alleged that you have contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to initiate an investigation into the missing funds; however, you have failed to provide PSTA with any proof of this,” PSTA’s lawyer wrote in his November demand letter to Bergener.

When contacted by the Times, a spokesperson for the FBI Tampa Field Office said they, per agency policy, “cannot confirm or deny any particular contact or the potential existence of an investigation.”

Miller, PSTA’s CEO, said that upon hearing Bergener’s allegations of email fraud and missing funds, the agency contacted the FBI and filed a complaint with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. A spokesperson for the office confirmed the case is “open and active” but was unable to provide further information.

The agency has also notified its insurers, who are conducting a forensic audit into whether PSTA’s email system was breached.

The controversy comes as PSTA’s Mobility-On-Demand is experiencing an uptick in ridership, with more residents with disabilities counting on the service to move around their communities. On any given weekday, around 900 rides are booked using the service, which operates Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Each rider pays a $3.50 co-pay per trip.

To reduce the agency’s reliance on GOIN’ and stop the ever-growing amount of money they are owed, PSTA is trying to transition all of its riders to a method of paying PSTA directly, said Miller, the agency’s chief executive.

“It’s more complicated than just canceling the contract with the software company,” he said, adding that hundreds rely on the service every day. “I didn’t want to harm the customers. So that’s why we have to keep using the software.”

PSTA currently has an evergreen contract with GOIN’, according to an agency spokesperson, with a listed expiration date more than a decade away. But the agency has been hoping to transition away from the software, even before the discovery of the missing funds, Miller said.

The Federal Transit Administration, the city of Tarpon Springs and the Veterans Health Administration are among the company’s clients, according to the GOIN’ website.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure that we get these passenger fares returned to us,” Miller said. “I’m confident that we will get there. Whether it’s going to require it to file a legal claim, I don’t know yet.”