Clean audit means state can now start supporting MARTA

By Maria Saporta

It’s time to move on.

That message is directed to state Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Dunwoody), who chairs the legislature’s MARTA Oversight Committee (MARTOC).

Chambers has turned beating up on MARTA an intramural sport, calling on a host of investigations of the agency and accusing MARTA of mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility.

Chambers had asked the state auditors to do a thorough investigation into MARTA’s finances, hoping to find evidence to back her accusations.

Well, on Monday, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts — State Government Division released its audit, giving MARTA a clean bill of health. See story that appeared on the Atlanta Business Chronicle website.

This audit review should be enough to silence Chambers once and for all. She has made MARTA and the state jump through time-consuming hoops on her witch hunt for evil and wrongdoing.

And now it’s time for her to stop.

MARTA is facing enough challenges with declining sales tax revenues and increasing operating expenses without having to defend itself at every turn from a Chambers’ attack.

In fact, for the life of me, I don’t even understand why MARTOC exists in this day and age. Remember, the state of Georgia does not have any money in the game.

Unlike all the other major transit agencies in the country, the state shamefully does not contribute to MARTA’s operations, which puts our transit system at a major disadvantage.

Worst than that, the state won’t even give MARTA the flexibility to use the sales tax that it collects in Fulton and DeKalb counties on where it’s most needed.

When the MARTA act was created nearly 40 years ago, the state required the agency to spend half of its sales tax revenue on capital and half on operations. That worked when the system was expanding, but it is now an albatross around MARTA’s neck. Yet the state legislature has failed to remedy this inequity.

Again, no other major transit agency in the country has to deal with this kind of constraint.

The state audit now should change the tune at the state legislature. Perhaps our state can start looking for solutions to help MARTA survive these tough economic times rather than using the agency for target practice.

About Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.
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12 comments
Optimist
Optimist

Here's the deal for streamlining MARTA:

1. MARTOC members must live and commute in NYC via public transit only for two weeks. They will note that a) people can share Metrocards--making it super easy to take visitors out without having to buy separate cards, b) no need to dig in your bag/backpack/coat pocket to swipe the Metrocard AGAIN upon exiting subway station, c) tons of trains heading all over town and across the east/hudson rivers!!

2. Georgia either a) contributes funds to MARTA to expand/improve its reach/service OR provides transparent assessment of MARTA services (compared with all candidate cities) as part of all future state business development proposals!! MUST include cost/percentage comparison of proposed development bribes with estimated shortfall in MARTA funding per comparison systems.

3. Let's get some newsstands and convenience (refreshment) stands inside the stations. And what about ENCOURAGING artists/musicians??? Make those acoustics work!!

4. Produce a weekly (old school) print publication featuring profiles of public transit riders (in NYC, the mayor could be profiled), their lives and favorite MARTA stations, bus drivers, etc. Make it "cool" to get out of that god-forsaken carbon-emitting vehicle and take the TRAIN!!

5. Let's get all the trains to the airport on SUNDAY evenings, and running on TIME, so people (aka: potential frequent riders) returning from weekend trips CAN enjoy a positive, efficient MARTA experience (instead of having to sit on the train for 20 minutes while the OTHER train sits nearby "out of order."

I could go on, but is Ms. Chambers even listening.....???

Atlanta CPA
Atlanta CPA

Madam Chambers,

Why don't you just go ahead and require an annual audit of MARTA if you are SO concerned? That would seem much more manageable than all this random, piecemeal nitpicking that you and your colleagues on MARTOC seem to love to engage in.

LESS political grandstanding, MORE substance to the role of oversight! That is what MARTOC needs. As it stands, MARTOC seems to be wasting MARTA's time and taxpayers' dollars on relentless hearings, countless investigations and non-stop nitpicking.

lobbyist
lobbyist

Maria,

Thanks for this much needed column.

To respond to your query as to the continuance of MARTOC, I was told by a veteran pro-MARTA, out-of-Atlanta legislator many years ago that MARTOC had been created by MARTA's authors as a "permanent MARTA support team in the General Assembly." The committee was created, and operated as a sort of "in-house" lobby for the Authority, in much the way that many standing legislative Committees similarly served the state agencies they dealt with.

I believe that the MARTOC was actually the first of what are now several "overview" committees for various agencies and authorities. It was regarded as a useful model for many years as a way to maintain legislative interest in these agencies by requiring presiding officers to appoint members to it, adding another "plum" to hand out.

Rep. Chambers, and Speaker Richardson have set a different course for MARTOC than its founders and their succeeding Chairs envisioned. That change is now in the balance as to its merit.

Turner Knapp
Turner Knapp

Hey Jill I was wondering if you could post what the cost of this examination by the audit department was? That way when you offer to do a full examination of all Marta operations taxpayers like myself could get an idea of what the cost of such a study would be. I am an accountant and know that these studies aren't cheap and with the State already short on funds I'm sure we would all agree that we should be getting the most bang for out buck.

Here is a direct link to the study if anybody wants to save some time. I know we are all short of it:
https://www.audits.state.ga.us/rptSearch/report/9903

I think it's great that the state is taking an interest in Marta. You guys should be really proud of how far this system has come without any help whatsoever from the State. That means you guys have time to do a lot more audits, sorry, examinations right!

It seems to me that the provisions of the Marta Act itself might be a little dated. Maybe your office could dust that thing off and take a real hard look to see if the arbitrary 50/50 split that was set so many years ago makes sense in the vastly different environment that is Atlanta today. Marta has been cut off from doing any more expansion so does it really make sense that half of every tax dollar collected go to capital improvements?

If the State could take an interest in 21st Century Metropolitan Development the residents of Fulton County and the residents in your county could avoid having to subsidize our sales tax revenue to keep the only mass transit system we have ever known alive.

Then maybe, just maybe, Georgia could join the rest of the country in partnering with its major revenue generating metropolitan areas to come up with solutions that make sense. I'm having a tough time making any of our current stance on mass transit.

Thank you for your attention to this very important matter.

Turner Knapp

Man about Town
Man about Town

to person at #8

yeah - Chambers shouldn't read the reports and laws. She should follow Pelosi's example in Washington.

R Warner
R Warner

Ms Chambers gives politicians an even badder name.

Jill Chambers
Jill Chambers

Hi Maria

Thanks for mentioning the state auditor's examination of seven accounts relating to MARTA's LILO structured leases. Page one of the report lists the seven accounts that were examined - not audited.

Commissions, consultant fees, and legal expenses associated with these deals are not shown in this report. FY2009 MARTOC report shows about $500K spent on outside consultants for the LILO's.

Out of a total of 19 LILO deals, 14 are still in negotiation with the banks (see page 8).

I am truly thrilled that MARTA is benefiting from these deals in a positive way and that the auditors confirmed this in their limited examination.

Another important item shown in the report is that the MARTA board approved a set aside of two cash reserve funds totaling $107 Million (a "real estate" and a "super reserve fund"). It is fantastic that MARTA can stash that much cash. But as you can see in the chart on page 11, these two funds are applied in later years rather than now - I'm not an accountatnt, but it seems as though more of these liquid assets could be used to help the budget right now.

Finally, in the conclusion of the report (page 12), it is clearly states that the operations of the Authority were not examined for this report.

If MARTA would like to have a full state audit on their operations expenditures, I would be happy to request a real audit!

Again, I am pleased that MARTA is enjoying the benefits of successful transactions in the LILO investments.

Thanks for the opportunity to respond,
Jill

PS: here is a link to the state auditors report on the examination of LILO deals:

https://www.audits.state.ga.us/searchRpts.html
(enter "marta" into the key word search to access the pdf of the "special examination")

supainsf
supainsf

I'm so happy to see this post and kudos to Maria for her continued efforts to bring attention to positive efforts to make Atlanta better.

To the points above, I agree. It is frankly embarrassing for the metro Atlanta region that the state legislature has been such an obstruction in reforming MARTA's funding structure. For individuals like myself involved in transportation and urban planning, it makes us cringe at the idea returning to Atlanta until the politics are in the right place. This "right place" doesn't even necessarily mean having politics that outright support transit, but at least would not block their ability to do the right thing.

If I were a progressive business wanting to locate in the southeast, Atlanta's seems to be falling behind Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham as an attractive new home.

Winkasdad29
Winkasdad29

It's this kind of politics that continues to deny Metro Atlanta the progress it needs to remain "The Capitol of the South". OK Jill, now that the audit has cleared MARTA of wrongdoing, so to speak, will you please now butt out?

MARTA needs state support. The Gold Domers must remove their heads from the sand and give MARTA the support it needs.

Atlanta CPA
Atlanta CPA

Thank you for this, Maria, and congratulations on a clean audit, MARTA!

MARTA certainly fared better than the GA DOT did on its most recent audit, that much is for sure!

And now the GA DOT wants to take over MARTA? What business does the DOT have taking over MARTA when it can't manage its own finances?

* State support of MARTA? Yes
* Regional transportation authority for Metro Atlanta? Yes
* GA DOT takeover of MARTA? NO!!!

Jock Ellis
Jock Ellis

McCarthyism becomes Chambersism. It is all about getting name recognition.

HistoryJoe
HistoryJoe

Indeed! I guess MARTOC would have made sense in a truly regional agency but with only two counties it does seem pretty pointless.

You know if Georgia Power took over public transit again there wouldn't be any eminent domain issues :) Still love their old slogan: "Georgia Power is a Citizen Wherever We Serve"

Trackbacks

  1. […] Below is a short excerpt, but please read the full column here. […]

  2. […] that day, longtime business columnist and smart growth champion Maria Saporta  told state Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Dunwoody, to stop making MARTA “jump through time-consuming hoops […]

  3. […] it the way everyone including whackadoodle Jill Chambers knows it, as has been decided by the MARTA audit coming up fine and dandy. Chambers has turned beating up on MARTA an intramural sport, calling on a host of investigations of […]

  4. […] adore).  She is known for constantly bullying and berating MARTA, the board, and CEO Dr. Scott and has hunted for discrepencies and corruption to fuel her fire and found none.  Rep. Chambers was also quoted as saying something along the lines that MARTA keeps crying […]