Inadequate funding has been identified as the main reason for the Transport Board’s inability to adequately address some of its operational inefficiencies between 2015 and 2018.
The view was put forward by the Transport Board’s former General Manager Sandra Forde on Friday, when some concerns at the state-owned entity were placed on the table by Auditor General Leigh Trotman.
The matters, first highlighted in a special audit report for the 2015 to 2018 period, have been the subject of discussion at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearings for the past year.
The issues raised include management practices, overspending, a missing bus, over-invoicing, fleet shortage, purchases of reconditioned transmissions, lack of management meetings, a major reduction in ridership and difficulty in paying suppliers, among others.
Zeroing in on the issue of fleet shortage at a time when substantial sums were being spent to constantly fix faulty buses, the auditor general called on Forde to give an assessment about why that was the case and what action management had taken during her tenure to rectify the situation.
Forde simply responded that it was due to “inadequate funds” from the Ministry of Finance.
After a long awkward pause, she explained that the Transport Board would submit a supplementary every year to the Ministry of Finance for funding to cover its operation for the year.
“You would find that sometimes what we find to be a realistic amount to assist us with the operations for the financial year, the Ministry of Finance did not agree. There was always a fixed figure that we would receive,” said Forde.
However, not satisfied with that answer, Trotman queried whether the Transport Board would seek a supplementary based on the fact that it was transporting old-aged pensioners, school children and police officers for free, to which Forde indicated that no such case was ever made.
“When the supplementary is done, we look at the incoming revenue and we look at the expenses. So based on the trend for passenger fares and based on the number of buses that we anticipate that we will have on the road, that’s how we calculate our projection of revenue for passenger fares.
“A similar thing is done for school children and old-aged pensioners and then based on that we calculate our expenses, especially wages and salaries, on the number of drivers we think we would need to deliver that service,” she explained.
When asked if she believed a “provision of funding” would have solved the fleet and maintenance problems, Forde said “yes”.
It is estimated that during the period under review, the Transport Board had access to more than $370 million based on revenue and government subsidies.
“Funding was the main problem,” Forde maintained, adding that there were some things that the Transport Board was unable to control including the cost of diesel, which would fluctuate, wages and salaries and repairs and maintenance.
Trotman replied, however, “You don’t think operational efficiency would play a part? You indicate that you wanted more funding, but if you are not operating efficiently even if you get more funding you would just be kind of wasting resources. What would you have done to try and improve the operational efficiency of the organisation?”
Forde responded by pointing out that the oldest buses in the Transport Board’s fleet at the time were 25 years old, and that a part of improving efficiency at the institution would be to purchase new buses.
She further explained that she wrote to “various” government ministries several times seeking funding and for assistance in purchasing new buses.
Forde said to ensure some level of efficiency, management also started a programme in which the buses which could be fixed were selected and the board received assistance for the work to be done.
Stating that this move could be considered successful, Forde said “During the period, the last financial year I was there, repairs and maintenance were reduced considerably.”
Forde started working at the institution in 2010 and she retired in 2018.
During Friday’s hearing she was also grilled by PAC members about “questionable” spending practices of the Transport Board when it came to the sourcing of reconditioned transmissions, the lack of regular management meetings, and “missing” minutes from some of the approximately six to eight meetings that were held per year during the period under scrutiny.