DOT Bank Accounts Bigger than Reported by Agency?

August 24, 2015

Investigative Reports

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MoneyUPDATE: 8/27/15 – One week after The Nerve first asked the S.C Department of Transportation to explain discrepancies between its and state comptroller general records regarding the agency’s cash balances, the department issued a written statement saying that a “large portion of those funds belong to other agencies and entities,” which are “not reported as part of SCDOT’s cash balance.” Other questions raised in the story below, such as the amount of “other” funds carried over by DOT into this fiscal year, remain unanswered.

At the end of July, the S.C. Department of Transportation reported having $269 million in collective cash balances in its non-federal aid and highway funds, department records publicly released last week show.

But as of Aug. 17, the $1.84 billion agency had nearly $518.7 million in total cash balances – close to double what was presented at a DOT Commission workshop meeting on Thursday – according to separate records provided to The Nerve by the state Comptroller General’s Office.

Since fiscal 2012, DOT’s total ratified budget, which includes state, federal and “other” funds, has grown by $708 million, or about 54 percent when adjusted for inflation, state budget records show.

Earlier this year, Gov. Nikki Haley and lawmakers offered their own proposals to hike the state’s gasoline tax to address road and bridge needs in South Carolina, though nothing was passed before the Legislature adjourned in July.

The Nerve after Thursday’s workshop meeting sent written messages to DOT spokesman Pete Poore seeking an explanation for the discrepancy between DOT and comptroller general records on recent cash balances, but received no response by publication of this story.

The same day the DOT Commission held its workshop and regular monthly meetings, Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom announced his agency’s year-end financial report for the state’s general fund. That report shows DOT carried over nearly $31 million in unspent general funds into this fiscal year, which started July 1.

In comparison, the agency recently had much smaller general-fund reserves to start the fiscal year. DOT, for example, carried forward about $650,000 in general funds into fiscal 2014, which started July 1, 2013, comptroller general records show.

Lawmakers in June 2013 passed a transportation funding bill (Act 98) that requires, among other things, DOT to annually transfer $50 million in “nontax sources” – presumably to be appropriated by the General Assembly – to the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank to “finance bridge replacement, rehabilitation projects, and expansion and improvements to existing mainline interstates.”

The Infrastructure Bank, which is governed by a board that includes Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, over the years has funneled several billion dollars to select counties for large transportation projects that critics contend were based more on political considerations than on objective criteria.

Eckstrom’s year-end financial report for fiscal 2015 showed that DOT had $93.1 million in “adjusted authorizations” in general funds and $62.2 million in general fund expenditures, leaving $30.9 million to carry forward into this fiscal year.

And that amount doesn’t include “other” fund reserves that likely were available at the start of this fiscal year. Of the agency’s total current $1.84 billion ratified budget, $1.57 billion is listed in other funds, which includes the state gasoline tax, according to records from the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office (RFA).

DOT carried over nearly $93 million in other funds into fiscal 2013 – the last year for which records were publicly available. The Nerve last week asked the RFA for the amount of other-fund DOT reserves at the start of this fiscal year but was informed through a spokeswoman to contact the state Executive Budget Office, which is part of the new Department of Administration under Haley’s control.

The Nerve recently sent several written requests to department spokesman Brian Gaines for other-fund DOT reserves but did not receive any specifics by publication of this story. On Thursday, The Nervesubmitted a formal request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act for those records.

Records presented at last week’s DOT Commission workshop meeting listed a total of $1.36 billion in state construction projects as of July 10, of which $482 million, or 35 percent, had been completed.

“One of the things we’ve learned over the last several years is that it would be very beneficial to us to increase the pipeline of projects being developed so that when resources are allocated, we’re quickly able to deploy those funds and actually have dirt turning on projects,” Acting DOT Secretary Christy Hall told commissioners. “We need to start earlier, and we need to start more projects in the development phase.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.