Ex-NICE director speaks

Stephens: Funds used for match could no longer be used as such

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LaRoy Dowd, Post Falls dam manager for Avista, walks above the spillway Wednesday where an estimated 12,000 cubic feet of water per second

Helen Stephens believes it's time that the full story of last month's demise of a local transit provider be told.

The former director of the now-defunct North Idaho Community Express/Kootenai Area Transit System, speaking for the first time at length about the cease in operations, contacted The Press on Wednesday in response to a previous story on an audit highlighting the service's financial woes and a grand theft allegation.

Stephens said she's unaware of any possible theft that took place at NICE.

"I have no clue what that's about," said Stephens, adding that she even has contacted the Coeur d'Alene Police Department to try to find out more about the report.

Police said there's an ongoing investigation on a report alleging grand theft, but can't release details or a suspect.

As for why transit operations ceased, Stephens said contract funds from Kootenai County that were used in the previous seven years as local matching funds to obtain a grant- more than $26,718 each month - could no longer be used as such.

"I had been declaring it as matching funds, and the state had signed off on it and accepted it for the last seven years," Stephens said. "Then they said I couldn't use it for the match.

"Whose job was it to let me know that this was wrong? Whose job was it to let me know that there were inadequacies in our paperwork that needed to be addressed? Whose job was it to check everything before grant money was given year after year and nothing was ever mentioned?"

Rinda Mitchell, public transportation grant manager for the Idaho Department of Transportation, which performed the audit, said she's new to the department and is unaware of why the funding wasn't questioned in previous years.

"I'm just trying to do what's required by the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) and provide oversight to the (grant) sub-recipients," Mitchell said.

Stephens said she acted in good faith trying to manage the organization's funds and believes the audit was good because it pointed out what needed to be done to right the ship.

"Too bad we never had a chance to implement the changes and get on the road to good," she wrote in her response to ITD on the audit.

Stephens said the transit has always had cash flow problems.

"I'd always send out a letter to the counties and cities asking to help us with matching funds," Stephens said. "They would say they didn't have the funds, but we'd always provide transportation."

Stephens said, in hindsight, she wishes she would have ceased operations until all funding matters were in order.

Stephens said she feels bad for the riders, that the service came to a sudden halt. NICE has operated for 21 years. It operated in Kootenai, Bonner and Shoshone counties. Seniors, those with disabilities and students were among those who rode.

The number of passenger trips the service provided in recent months ranged from 3,676 to 9,505.

"A lot of people are pointing fingers, but I'm not," Stephens said. "I'm just sad for the people who we've transported all these years. We have always strived to make our people come first and they did."

Stephens said she made the job her life and her $43,000 a year salary was about half of what other public transit directors across the state get.

"I have poured my heart and soul into it," she said.

A replacement transit provider is being sought for both the urban and rural routes. Kootenai Medical Center, which already provides medical-related transit services in the urban area, has agreed to temporarily fill that gap formerly provided by NICE/KATS.

Citylink, funded by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and federal grants, continues to operate throughout Kootenai County.

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