Audit: DOT mismanaged rural vanpool program
The state Department of Transportation provided little oversight as a Cary company operated a vanpool program for low-income workers in rural areas of North Carolina and racked up excessive fees, according to an audit released Thursday.
The auditors' findings have been turned over to the State Bureau of Investigation to determine if any criminal charges are warranted.
The DOT hired 2Plus Inc. in late 2000 to operate a fleet of vans to help low-income people in rural areas commute to work. The program peaked at 34 routes in 2006, but only 10 were still running when the state cut ties with the company two years ago.
The audit found that 2Plus operated the program without a contract for the equivalent of six years because officials in the state Division of Public Transportation failed to execute new contracts after old ones expired. That led to disputes over the purpose of the program, such as 2Plus using some vans to transport South Carolina workers to jobs in North Carolina and non-resident aliens to jobs at Outer Banks hotels, according to the audit.
The absence of a contract also led to "excessive and unreasonable" fees for the program, the audit states. Those included an extra $163,272 to cover personal mileage of volunteer van drivers, temporary rentals when state vans weren't available and insurance deductibles, according to the audit.
"It's just poor management every way you look at it," State Auditor Beth Wood said. "It's just mind-boggling to me. You've got this kind of gross mismanagement, and then I have to turn around and cut nine positions (because of a tight budget)."
Byron York, executive director of 2Plus, said neither the company nor its staff received undue benefits.
"The program has been honest, legitimate. We show where the expenses have been and for what," York said.
The state paid 2Plus $4.3 million through June 2010, and the company says it is still owed $617,404, according to the audit. The state also spent $721,590 on the vans used in the program, the audit states.
The DOT didn't have lease agreements with 2Plus for most of the state-owned vans, the audit states.
The Division of Public Transportation's lack of oversight meant 2Plus didn't maintain the vans properly, according to the audit. Some vans were driven 30,000 to 45,000 miles between oil changes, and the fleet went years without undergoing any annual safety inspection, the audit states.
Auditors also found 2Plus mismanaged the program, such as having 27 vans in service for 10 routes in 2010. Some of the extra vans were found parked outside the homes of company officials or route drivers, and two new vans sat unused at the State Equipment Depot in Raleigh for two years, the audit states.
"We got approval for every route. We were never able to put up any route unilaterally by ourselves," York said, calling the vanpool program a benefit for rural residents and an economic development tool.
The program helped provide workers for a major Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Bladen County, for example, but York said some of those workers had to come from South Carolina because the plant needed to pull from a larger area.
Transportation Secretary Gene Conti agreed in a written statement with auditors' recommendations for tighter controls over contracts and processing invoices. Vanpool programs have been shifted to local transit systems, Conti said, and the DOT plans to work with them to ensure vans comply with state inspection and maintenance requirements.
DOT Deputy Secretary Paul Morris said no one in the agency was disciplined because of the mismanagement because Miriam Perry, the division director who oversaw the vanpool program, retired in December. Officials said they have made sweeping changes to the division's staff and policies, and on Thursday they named 26-year agency veteran Teresa Hart as Perry's replacement.