Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"It's high time the Alamo RMA had an independent audit of its books. Better yet, let's close its doors altogether."

Toll agency defaults on loan from City


By Terri Hall
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2010

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA), Bexar County's toll authority, has defaulted on its loan from the City of San Antonio taxpayers.

The loan was due to be paid on September 1, 2010. On March 24, 2005, the City authorized a $500,000 loan to the ARMA to help fund start-up expenses. Bexar County loaned them $750,000, only to then yank back $500,000 of it in 2007. The agency has yet to repay either of the remaining loans in full. The City's loan has been the center of controversy before since it lacks the authority to loan money. The City's taxpayers are not a bank, though these days, it seems our politicians think we are...

Of course, the ARMA claims its problem is a lack of a revenue stream, ie - taxpayer money, to pay it back. What happens to you and I if we default on our home or car loan? Do we get to send a letter to the bank and say, "Sorry, I don't have the money right now"? Nope, you'd be looking at a foreclosure notice or repossession. That's essentially what the RMA did. It's asking for an extension on the loan. With the ARMA officially in default, taxpayers and the elected officials who brought us this mess need to renew efforts to pull the plug on this useless, second tier bureaucracy that duplicates TxDOT's duties to the tune of $40 million with nothing to show for it. The 281/1604 southern interchange ramps and superstreet projects its doing can and should be done by TxDOT.

In March of 2009, three county commissioners had considered dissolving the ARMA, but the ARMA has managed to stay on life support using our money to lobby to keep its doors open through tax hikes at every opportunity. The agency hired two lobbyists, Chris Shields and Brian Cassidy, who were paid more than $24,000 during the 81st Legislature.

Just a cursory look inside the RMA's books cries out for more scrutiny. City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her staff have pointed to several problems on the RMA's most recent financial statement. The ARMA Board recently approved its budget. While the operating budget shows no increase in salaries, it doesn't break out the individual salaries or the benefits that each employee receives as they did last year when we made a big stink about Executive Director Terry Brechtel's $10,000 bonus in a down economy.

So my question is, will Brechtel still receive her $10,000 bonus since that was part of last year's compensation package? Wouldn't the salaries be less the $10,000 in the change column if she weren't getting one? The whole format is shady considering the controversy ...so if she's still scheduled to get one, that's an outrageous abuse of taxpayer money for an already wasteful agency that's merely duplicating TxDOT's duties. Their total salaries/benefits/compensation for not even a dozen employees is still $1.2 million!

They're charging taxpayers $637,000 for "management fees" on the 281 superstreet, but only $80,000 for the superstreet on 1604. Why such a huge difference?

They're charging "management fees" everywhere:
  • $4.4 million for the two environmental studies on 281 & 1604
  • $717,000 for the superstreets
  • $1.5 million for the interchange plus $9.6 million when you count the construction "management" fees
  • $1.3 million for 281
  • $1 million for 1604

Again, why is the cost less for 1604 when that project is 35 miles versus 7.9 miles for 281? Then there's the $1.3 million under the generic "general research" management fees making it a grand total $15.4 million in just "management fees" alone. That's $15.4 million for what we already have a highway department to do!

If their total operating expenses equal $1.5 million, why are they charging the taxpayers $15.4 million in "management fees" (these are entirely separate fees from what they're paying the contractors for environmental work, design, engineering, public involvement, etc. when TxDOT has paid staff sitting around that can do much of what the RMA hires contractors to do at a much lower cost to taxpayers)?

If we're to believe ARMA's Director of Community Development, Leroy Alloway, who told the Stone Oak newspaper Welcome Home in its September 10 issue that one of the purposes for the Environmental Impact Statement on 281 is to "rule out toll roads," then why do we need an ARMA, whose sole purpose for existing is to toll local roads? We have a highway department that should have built the overpasses and expanded US 281 five years ago!

Meanwhile, ARMA Chairman Bill Thornton went on a tirade at the last board meeting saying San Antonio NEEDS toll roads and that we can't be a genuine "big city" without them. Yet we're to believe the ARMA is conducting an unbiased legitimate study of non-toll options for US 281 and Loop 1604? Yeah right! They think we are stupid.

These questions deserve answers (partial list of answers by ARMA here) and it's high time the ARMA had an independent audit of its books. Better yet, let's close its doors altogether.

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