NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — Why is Hampton Roads Transit over budget and leaving cities on the hook to fork out taxpayer money?
The agency was $5.3 million over the budget for last year and $2 million of that will come from the City of Norfolk as part of a ridership formula.
When you ask HRT President and CEO William Harrell what he most wants, it is a rainy day fund to cover budget overruns.
The budget problems are due to a shortage of drivers, bus break downs and — most importantly and concerning — lower than expected ridership.
The cost overruns have led two Norfolk City Council members to suggest Harrell should be fired for the overruns.
“It is a very complicated issue,” says Harrell.
What is complicated is making the HRT budget balance, and Harrell has been in the hot flames of criticism.
It began last week when HRT posted the $5.3 million budget overrun, which is now falling back on local cities, and was caused in part by cost overruns in the Southside Bus Maintenance Garage, where Harrell conducted a one-on-one interview.
Norfolk Councilwoman Angelia Williams Graves suggested Harrell be fired.
“In corporate America, William Harrell may not have a job this morning,” she told 10 On Your Side last week.
WAVY News asked Harrell about the councilwoman’s comment.
“People in corporate America would have had a reserve fund,” Harrell said. “The bottom line: We were 2.5 percent off of a $100 million budget, and we take full responsibility for that.”
Norfolk Councilman Tommy Smigiel said at HRT, “heads should roll,” when he learned the budget overrun will cost city taxpayers $2 million. 10 On Your Side’s Andy Fox also asked Harrell about that comment.
“This is my point. I understand the frustration of politicians. The bottom line: We need to review the facts and work together,” Harrell responded.
Harrell says HRT Commission members, including Norfolk Councilman Paul Riddick, knew of budget overruns.
“All the commissioners knew about it,” Harrell stated.
When Andy asked whether Riddick failed to let council members know, Harrell said, “They are supposed to… but I wasn’t at the meeting.”
Andy called Riddick, who put him on hold and then hung up the phone, which often happens when WAVY News calls him. Andy would have asked him what he knew, when he knew it, and did he share it?
When asked whether he thinks the council members were too quick to judge, Harrell says, “I don’t think they had the whole picture. I don’t think they realized we have been sharing this monthly information on the budget with our board. I think it is important for us to work together, and not attack one another.”
He also pointed out that the HRT bus fleet averages 10 years, but the Federal Transit Administration says the average age should be six and a half years. Harrell says HRT doesn’t have a funding source to support the necessary 25 new buses a year.
Harrell will hold a March 23 meeting to talk about what happened with the budget, what needs to happen moving forward and he will discuss a new funding model.
For his part, Harrell has done this to respond to budget issues: He has cut hiring people, he has eliminated positions, had all departments cut their spending and has cut costs in travel expenses.