The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Northumberland County

June 23, 2014

Bus stats support suspicions of overbilling

Carrier receives county, state funds

MOUNT CARMEL — A state report supports municipal officials’ allegations that King Coal Tours and former borough workers inflated statistics so the public transportation service provider would receive higher taxpayer-funded reimbursements.

Tony Matulewicz, president of Mount Carmel’s Borough Council, said the state Department of Transportation report backs borough officials’ claims that King Coal, of Kulpmont, and former borough transportation management fraudulently reported passenger numbers for the Lower Anthracite Transportation System.

The system is funding in part by Northumberland County taxpayers.

“Anyone with a set of eyes can look at those charts see that something drastic changed with LATS when we began to question the past practices,” Matulewicz said.

The report, which features 236 pages about transportation systems across the state, scrutinizes the Lower Anthracite Transportation System over four pages and documents severe changes that occurred when Mount Carmel replaced King Coal Tours in February 2013 with Catawese Coach Lines as its service provider.

The Lower Anthracite Transportation System is a fixed-route rural service for those living between Mount Carmel and Shamokin. Managed by Mount Carmel, it receives 97 percent of its funding through a PennDOT grant composed of state and, until the most recent fiscal year, federal funding.

When King Coal Tours was the service provider, it was reported that between 50,000 and 60,000 passengers per fiscal year from 2008 to 2011 used the system. When the borough switched from King Coal to Catawese, those numbers dropped to 20,000 passengers in the next two years, according to report.

Once borough officials began questioning the bills in July 2012, King Coal started inexplicably lowering the monthly charges, from $35,000 that month to $17,272 in January 2013, officials said.

A month later, Mount Carmel switched to Catawese, of Shamokin.

The state report documents the statistics in a note at the bottom of a page. It reads, “Reported ridership prior to FY (fiscal year) 2011-12 may have been overstated. FY 2011-12 and FY 2012-13 ridership is correct.”

Mount Carmel’s Borough Council in May 2013 asked Police Chief Todd Owens to investigate King Coal for allegedly overcharging and using public funds to purchase materials for the private company.

The council also called for an investigation into the borough’s former transit coordinator Gerald Matzura and the borough’s former transit manager Joseph Bass.

Discrepancies in the records were discovered when Matzura retired and Megan Janolek was appointed executive director.

Despite the funds coming from the state, PennDOT has not launched an investigation.

“This issue involves a local contract,” said Erin Waters-Trasatt, deputy press secretary for PennDOT. “We can’t comment on investigations except to say that PennDOT has a commitment to our customers to take appropriate action on all matters involving the department.”

Matulewicz is critical of the state’s involvement.

“The ultimate tragedy to our residents is that through the borough’s investigation we saved hundred of thousands of state federal and local tax dollars, and our reward was to have our budget slashed by the state by over $150,000,” he said.

The borough was planning on adding a night route through the Coal Region as a DUI countermeasure program, Sunday routes, expanded hours to Knoebels Amusement Resort and multiple Susquehanna Valley Mall trips.

They were all shot down by the state, Matulewicz said.

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