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El Paso County cancels federally unfunded vanpool program

Published On: May 12 2014 07:46:30 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 09 2014 01:38:20 AM CDT

El Paso County cancels federally unfunded vanpool program

El Paso County Commissioners unanimously voted Monday to cancel the "Vamonos Vanpool" program, but taxpayers may still have to pay more than half a million dollars for it.

The county was paying for the program through grants from the Texas Department of Transportation, but county employees failed to turn in required reports to the state. Now the county could still be on the hook for more than $600,000 in unpaid bills and un-reimbursed expenses already paid to the vanpool service contractor.

"I cannot overstate how terrible this is," said County Judge Veronica Escobar.

The judge expressed her frustration to County Family and Community Services Manager Rosemary Neill, who oversaw the program.

"My first instinct was to see if we could fix what I thought was a billing issue, and to see if TxDOT was going to release that final year of funding that we needed, so that we could see if we could migrate to a different funding source," Neill said.

"Let's make it very clear," responded County Commissioner Patrick Abeln. "This isn't TxDOT releasing funding. This is TxDOT refusing funding, because we have not met Federal Highway Administration standards.

Ablen said the Federal Highway Administration requires that the county provide information about each van's mileage and regular passenger counts. But the county said it failed to produce those numbers, which TxDOT uses to confirm that the program indeed reduced pollution and traffic congestion.

"My duty and obligation to the county is to look at these invoices that we have submitted, cure the underlying information, so that we make the county whole," Neill said.
     
"Isn't our duty and obligation to understand the grant requirements and to adhere to those grant requirements?" Abeln asked. "And didn't that duty and obligation start at the inception of the grant?"

Abeln also pointed out Monday that as far back as 2012, TxDOT informed the county that the program was not compliant. Abeln also showed Neill pictures of the vans holding just two people, when they're required to hold seven.

"It grieves me that you have such a poor opinion of our management of this program," Neill said.

"It speaks for itself," Abeln responded.

TxDOT and the vanpool service didn't respond to requests for comment Monday.

Escobar said the county will try to provide the necessary data to TxDOT to try and restore the program's federal grant funding.

As for Neill's future at the county, Thursday's meeting agenda shows commissioners will discuss a "personnel matter concerning family and community services."

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