The Orange County Transportation Authority will likely seek $71,000 in refunds from Santa Ana after the city spent taxpayer money taking local senior citizens on gambling junkets and wine tours, based on the recommendations of a Transportation Authority board committee.
Penalties for the spending could have been much worse. An agency found to have violated rules governing Measure M2, the countywide half-percent sales tax that funds public transit costs and the city’s senior transit program, could lose access to those funds for five years.
But Todd Spitzer, a county supervisor and chairman of the Transportation Authority board’s finance and administration committee, which met and discussed the issue Wednesday, indicated he didn’t want to go that far.
Instead, the committee recommended that agency staff seek refunds from Santa Ana, develop clearer policies for spending money on senior mobility programs, and improve oversight of program spending. The full Board of Directors must still vote on the recommendations before they're implemented.
Spitzer said he didn't want to take an aggressive approach because Santa Ana had been submitting monthly reports on the spending to the Transportation Authority and nobody at the agency raised issues about the trips.
“There’s enough responsibility to go around,” he said.
Santa Ana, like other cities in the county, operates a program that gives senior citizens free transportation to the city’s two senior centers. The program also took seniors to the grocery store, to local destinations like the Bower’s Museum and, on occasion, to casinos in San Diego County and the Central Coast wine country town of Solvang.
Any trips to places other than the senior center violated the funding contract between the Transportation Authority and the city, the transit agency’s auditors concluded. City and Transportation Authority officials are working on an amendment to the contract that allows local transit to places like the grocery store but prohibits travel outside the county.
Spitzer said he didn’t take issue with the trips, only that the trips violated the contract.
“Seniors like to go to casinos, and they like to go to wineries. I have no problem with that all,” Spitzer said. “I’m not some puritan. I’m not bothered by the conduct.”