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May 25, 2011

State: OTA exaggerated rider numbers

Former union official says drivers complained about timesheet changes

OTTUMWA — The state auditor’s office has determined the city’s transit system overstated ridership “by an estimated 50 percent,” and that the inflated numbers were increased by office staff on the instructions of Director Pam Ward (Click here).

The audit also mentions complaints that OTA changed drivers’ timesheets to reduce overtime (Click here). Ward said had OTA done so, the union would have filed a grievance. A former union steward says he did, and that Ward is lying about never getting complaints about the practice.

The state audit, released Wednesday morning, only covers fiscal 2010. The auditors concluded documents showing rider numbers in fiscal 2009 and earlier were destroyed by the Ottumwa Transit Authority (Click here).

The report says this was done on Ward’s orders, and that daily numbers were boosted by round numbers like 50 or 100 riders.

Susan Battani, a director within the office’s financial audit division, said the consistent increases by round numbers “is not statistical.” (Click here to view the full audit)

“In an example we had it was 100 [riders] every day for a month. In a couple [days] there were 50,” said Battani.

Ward said Wednesday the increases were because OTA was using a statistical analysis to get an accurate picture of true ridership numbers (Click here).

“Iowa transit authorities may use either actual passenger counts or a statistical analysis, but not a combination of both methods. We were unaware of that and we have implemented changes to our reporting procedures at this time. We will also be making adjustments as requested by the Iowa DOT,” said Ward.

She continued, saying the analysis was begun in response to a drop in rider numbers as reported by drivers.

“A ride is to be recorded as any time an individual steps onto a bus. And I believe that was what we were doing, prior to a significant drop in the data being turned in by the drivers. So we felt we did our duty reporting this to the board and to the state and when we received, as I said, no comment ... we moved forward,” Ward said.

Auditors reject OTA’s explanation, saying it makes little sense.

“Regardless of whether OTA was performing a statistical analysis, they had actual counts,” Battani said. “Actual is actual. Why would you inflate an actual number?”

Ward expressed concern about the allegation she directed employees to inflate numbers. She would not speculate on why employees said that to auditors, but suggested it could have been a misinterpretation on the part of state interviewers talking to employees.

“I guess it does worry me. I don’t know that that was factual. Just because a statement was made does not mean that it was interpreted correctly by the person hearing the statement or that the statement was made,” Ward said.

Battani said her office stands by its conclusion.

The ridership numbers are critical to the Ottumwa Transit Authority because they help determine how much money OTA receives from state and federal sources.

The report also alleges employees who worked overtime had their time sheets adjusted downward (Click here).

“If arbitrary changes had been made to reduce hourly pay for these individuals, a grievance would surely have been filed immediately. No grievances were filed and there were no complaints filed,” Ward said (Click here).

She later directly denied any such action to reduce overtime.

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