Interurban Transit Partnership

Rapid CEO Peter Varga receives bonus on eve of tax renewal

In just shy of two months, The Rapid will be seeking a renewal of a 1.47 mils tax. The millage will ostensibly be sufficient to help support its operations for another twelve years, to the tune of $14.8 million annually. Though the millage renewal is a short time away, the Rapid’s oversight board saw fit to award Rapid CEO Peter Varga a $4,500 “merit bonus” last month.

Peter Varga’s bonus, while only a negligible chunk of the overall budget, is another in a long line of wasteful financial decisions by The Rapid. The Rapid, operated by the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP), has a long history of benefiting their executives and their organization at taxpayer expense, with no benefit for riders of taxpayers. It is enormously disrespectful of Kent County taxpayers to urge the passage of yet another millage, while siphoning off thousands for bonuses to ITP executives like Peter Varga (on top of his already ample compensation of over $200,000 a year).

Proponents of the millage will no doubt assert its necessity for continuing “vital transportation services’, even in light of stagnant ridership numbers. Despite grandiose assurances from previous expansions like the Silver Line, which failed to deliver promised ridership and revenue, the Rapid’s supporters will breathlessly assert that, with a little bit more money, everything will work just as they say.

In truth, the tax renewal will go to line the pockets of ITP executives, keep empty buses chugging along the roads, and for more empty central stations.

The KCTA urges you to vote NO on the upcoming Rapid millage.

 

 

New Kent County Open Government Project web page released; compare tax rates, schools, and transparency

Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance announced the release of its completely revitalized Kent County Open Government Project (KCOGP) web site. This site allows residents of Kent County to compare local tax rates, school district performance, and local government transparency. It also allows anyone to create and print out a Freedom of Information Act request to any unit of local government in the county.

“We’re very excited to release our Kent County Open Government Project web site,” said Jeff Steinport, spokesperson for the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance. “The new features are beyond anything we’ve seen for any taxpayer organization in Michigan. We’re proud of the hard work that went into the site and we know that it will be very useful for all Kent County residents.”

The new site, available at www.OpenGovernmentProject.org, allows anyone to view the tax rates for each township, village, and city in the county, as well which school districts overlap each local unit of government. This, combined with the ability to compare school district performance, allows residents to find the best schools at the lowest cost.

For instance, the KCOGP web site allows users to find the school district with the highest graduation rate in the county – Caledonia Community Schools. When the user views the details of that school district, the municipalities that overlap it can be compared according to tax rate. The lowest local tax rate in the Caledonia Community Schools District is Lowell Township, with the 77th lowest taxes in the county (out of 93 local taxing units).

The Kent County Open Government Project also rated each local unit of government in 24 areas of transparency, ranking them on how open they are and how much information they make available to taxpayers online. Each unit of government was ranked with a letter grade. The highest-ranking government in the county was the City of Wyoming, with a raw score of 22 and a letter grade of A. The lowest ranking local government was a tie between the Village of Sand Lake and the Village of Casnovia, both with a very poor score of 3 and a letter grade of F.

Some interesting statistics available on the Kent County Open Government Project web site include:

  • The highest taxes in the county are in the part of the City of Grand Rapids that overlaps Forest Hills Public Schools, with an average tax bill of $3,403 each year;
  • The lowest taxes in the county are in the part of Solon Township that overlaps Tri County Area Schools, with an average tax bill of $1,466 each year;
  • The school district with the highest graduation rate is Caledonia Community Schools, with a 95.11% graduation rate;
  • The school district with the lowest graduation rate is Grand Rapids Public Schools, with a graduation rate of 44.56%;
  • Wayland Union Schools spends the most per pupil in the county, spending $17,268 each;
  • Tri County Area Schools spends the least per pupil in the county, spending $9,387 each.

Kent County Taxpayers Question Whether the Rapid Engaged in Improper Campaign Activity

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) is calling into question whether the Interurban Transit Partnership (the Rapid) engaged is improper campaign activity in the city of Walker. On Tuesday, November 6th, city of Walker voters will be given the opportunity to exit the ITP and its taxing authority once the current tax renewal expires. On Thursday, October 25th, Walker residents found a mail piece from the ITP in their mailbox touting the benefits of mass transit signed by the Mayor and Mayor pro-tem of Walker. (Images of the mail piece can be found at this link.)

It is not clear to KCTA who exactly received the mail piece within Walker but there were no reports from KCTA supporters throughout the other ITP member cities of any promotional piece coming from the Rapid. If in fact, the promotional piece was only sent to Walker just days before a major election to help decide whether the city remains in the ITP this would potentially be a violation of state law.

Eric Larson, spokesman for KCTA said, “The Rapid seems to be using taxpayer money to influence an election which is at least improper and potentially illegal. The timing of the piece with only Walker board members on the propaganda is clearly meant to sway voters in the upcoming withdrawal question. State law specifically prohibits public entities from engaging in political campaigns because there is an enormous conflict of interest. We see very few credible explanations for sending the promotional piece only to Walker days before the big election day. We have no problem with campaign groups engaging in the Walker withdrawal question (like Friends of Transit) but public agencies using taxpayer’s money to convince taxpayers to vote a certain way is wrong.”

Kent County Taxpayers Alliance calls for resignation of Interurban Transit Partnership CEO Peter Varga

Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance is calling for the resignation of Peter Varga, the CEO of the Interurban Transit Partnership (also known as “The Rapid”). The ITP is the regional transit agency in Kent County that covers Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, Kentwood, and Grandville. A news report from David Bailey, investigative reporter from WWMT Channel 3, uncovered unambiguous evidence that members of Varga’s staff, with his knowledge, encouraged each other to circumvent Michigan’s open records laws to prevent public scrutiny of their actions. (view the news story here). Conrad Venema, Planning Director of the taxpayer-funded ITP, emailed Peter Varga, along with two other ITP staff members and two outside paid consultants, and told them to “take this discussion to our private email accounts.” The group was discussing the upcoming vote in Walker on whether to allow voters there to control their own tax rates and spending. (view the email here).

Furthermore, the email mentions that at least one ITP board member may have been involved, potentially implicating the state’s Open Meetings law, which requires public bodies to deliberate in public meetings, not over private email.

KCTA has long criticized the ITP for being the least-transparent and least-accountable government entity in the county. Not only is the ITP’s board not directly elected, but it largely consists of individuals who are not elected to any office at all. Furthermore, the ITP is the only government entity in Kent County that can raise taxes but does not have an elected leadership.

Previously, Mr. Varga has refused to answer simple questions on his agency’s spending and waste, and he even walked out on an interview in May, unable to come up with any answers at all after sitting silent in the face of those questions. Mr. Varga more recently refused to answer questions posed by County Commissioners when he testified to that body last month.

Now Mr. Varga has explicitly approved the use of non-public resources to conduct the business of his agency with the intent of circumventing state law in regards to open records. This is a blatant attempt at preventing the public from understanding what and how the ITP operates. Not only is Mr. Varga’s agency unaccountable, it acts with complete disregard for the taxpayers who pay the salaries of its public servants. Mr. Varga’s actions have no place in a public agency.

“Peter Varga should be ashamed, but frankly, we’re not surprised. The ITP is unaccountable and this is what happens when a public agency is run by an unelected board. Peter Varga’s disregard for the spirit and letter of state law is telling about his wanton disregard for those who pay his salary,” said Jeff Steinport, project manager for KCTA. “We were shocked by David Bailey’s report. This is just a continuation of the ITP’s disregard for openness. The ITP has broken state open records laws in the past when we filed our own Freedom of Information Act request, and they backed down when we made their actions public.”

Previously, KCTA has exposed made-up numbers that the ITP publishes on its economic benefits, its false claim that its buses reduce pollution, its false claims of how much it costs taxpayers to run its buses, and its false claims of improved gas mileage when it spent enormous amounts of money on hybrid-electric buses.

“Frankly, the ITP has no credibility,” continued Steinport. “We’ve never come across a government body that so frequently misleads taxpayers. The public cannot believe the ITP’s numbers because they have such an extensive record of being misleading or simply making things up. The ITP appears to have an internal culture of contempt for openness and accountability. Also, Mr. Varga’s reference to some of the taxpayers – the one’s who pay his $200,000 plus salary, benefits, and company car – as ‘enemies’ because they question the practices of the ITP, shows a remarkably callous disrespect towards those whom he is asked to serve.”