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Waste Watch: A Ride on Your Dime Part 2
Watch Part 1 of this two-part special report.
Mass transit across the country is subsidized with tax dollars. It always has been, and probably always will be. Springfield is no different. However, nearly all of the Springfield Mass Transit District's budget comes from three tax sources.
The system struggles to put people on its buses. But as we said in Part 1 of our story, there's a definite need for transit here. Our question was whether it needs to be this large.
Now, in Part 2 of A Ride on Your Dime, we look to see if there's wasteful spending by the SMTD, and we examine whether the head of the transit system, whose salary comes from your tax dollars, is qualified to run the SMTD.
According to the SMTD's own stats from the last three years, just 8 percent of those yearly budgets came form the fare box. Federal, state, and Sangamon County taxes covered the other 91 percent.
Those same stats show that on average, six out of every 10 bus seats go empty.
It appears there is a small but dedicated ridership that depends on the buses because they have no other way to get around. So yes, there is a need for public transportation here. But does it need to be this large? ABC Newschannel 20's Vince DeMentri posed this question to SMTD Managing Director Frank Squires.
"I'm thinking," he said after a pause. "I'm not--I'm thinking--I want to give you an answer here. Just a good 10-second soundbite here. Repeat your question one more time?"
So we did.
"No, I am not going to say that we're--let me start again," Squires said.
When he did, Squires spent the next several minutes comparing the SMTD to larger transit systems like Chicago's. But he never did answer the question.
So we looked to see if there were places to trim the fat. According to Squires, the SMTD has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last 15 years to belong to state and national associations that lobby on behalf of all mass transit. We asked Squires if he could point to one thing that any of these groups did that benefits the SMTD directly.
"These are associations, Vince, that the district has belonged to since I was a board member 14 years ago," he said.
"So because you belong to it for 14 years, you just continue to do it without thinking that, 'Hey, maybe this is cost we can do without?,'" we asked him.
"Vince, I will have to bring that before the board," he said. "The board makes the decisions as to what we belong to and what we don't belong to."
From 2007 to 2012, the SMTD spent $150,000 to belong to a group known as Q5. It's the economic arm of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce. Its mission is job growth and retention.
We asked Squires how Q5 helped put people on buses.
"If Q5 and the partnership of Q5 can help create more jobs in this town on all economic levels, that will increase--create a need for more ridership, and they can start to use the bus," he said.
"But they haven't?," we asked.
Squires did not answer.
In fact, in its first five years, Q5 didn't come close to its job creation goals. The SMTD just re-upped its contract with Q5 for more than $150,000 over the next five years.
Squires has been the SMTD's top man since last September. He recently retired as an investigator with the Department of Corrections. He has no hands-on transit or management experience. He did spend the last 14 years on the board that oversees the SMTD--the last five of those as chairman.
There are seven board members. All are appointed by the Sangamon County Board of Supervisors.
We asked Squires what qualifies him to run the show.
"What I bring to the board as a board member was, I grew up in the city of Springfield," he said after a pause. "I rode the bus as a kid. I'm well aware of things--of the bus district. Come over here, I lend my life experience, work experience, to working for the district."
As chairman, Squires was unanimously approved for the director's job by the remaining board members. There was no job search conducted. That made us wonder--how did Squires' Department of Corrections experience make him board-worthy?
"I was appointed to the board," he said.
We asked him how.
"I was appointed to the board by the then-county board chairman," he said.
We asked him who that was.
"That was my mother," he said.
We then asked Squires if he thought his appointment to the board by his mother was nepotism. He said he didn't think it applied.
Squires' salary is $102,000.
Several viewers went to Facebook to comment on Part 1 of this story.
James Caruso of Rochester wrote, "You could run a half-hour Waste Watch program every day in this city/state. This is excellent reporting! It's about time our state legislature and local services are exposed for their wasteful spending."
Kellie Cravens of Springfield wrote, "I seriously disliked the angle and attitude you approached SMTD. Not really interested in watching this kind of story. How did they become so awful? Unnecessary pointless drama. I felt sorry for the SMTD rep. Pretty cheap shot."
We appreciate all of your comments.
Our approach to the story was simple. In these tight budget times, the SMTD spends tens of millions of tax dollars on a service used by a small percentage of people.
No one is arguing we need bus service here. But does it need to be this large? And who is in charge of those millions of tax dollars?
As for Vince's interview with Squires, Squires knew we were going to talk to him about the SMTD's low ridership, its funding, and its spending. He had two weeks to prepare for that interview.
Watch Part 1 of this two-part special report.
Watch Vince DeMentri's interview with Frank Squires in its entirety.
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