In the 1970s, the High Desert town of Victorville, California, started a single bus line for its neighborhoods. Soon, nearby cities began to request a few bus stops in their jurisdictions, and then a few more.
Today that modest bus service, the Victor Valley Transit Authority, travels an area of 425 square miles, getting its passengers, whether retirees on shopping day or Army trainees heading to Fort Irwin, where they need to go.
“I’ve been here for five years and I would say in that time we’ve doubled in size,” says Steven Riggs, Victor Valley’s finance director.
The Transit Authority operates on a 10-acre facility and is growing faster than ever, yet Riggs says it is still considered a “small transit provider” by the Federal Transportation Authority. “Large” providers have more than 100 buses on the streets at once; Victor Valley has 78, but they traverse both cities and rural communities around San Bernardino County.
Yet Riggs says a “large” status would only mean more audits, and Victor Valley is already audited almost constantly. Its $25 million budget is a web of 18 bank accounts and 26 funds from the local, state, and federal levels. To name a few, there is an account for vehicles and equipment, and another from the state for bus stops and walkways; there is federal funding for urban services, other federal funding for rural services, and another fund that supports ADA dial-a-ride services.
It’s a complex and ever changing structure, but transparency is critical, even for the everyday passengers of San Bernardino County. “Most people believe that taxes are basically wasted, so governments spend a lot of time, money, and energy making sure the taxpayer’s money is not mishandled.”
Software to get from A to B
For Victor Valley, “the time, energy, and money” comes in the form of nearly constant audits—one of its own each year, plus several state and federal audits on two and three year cycles—a pace which took some getting used to for Riggs.
He needed software that ran like Victor Valley’s buses: powerful and effective, yet intuitive to use. “When I was looking at software, Microsoft Dynamics popped up, and Sage Business popped up, but they were very expensive. Quickbooks and Peach Tree popped up, but they didn’t have the audit features that Cougar had. After test driving it, Cougar Mountain just seemed to have that big box feel with the intuitive interaction, at a price the budget could handle.’”
Riggs wasn’t the only one happy with the choice. “Auditors absolutely love the program,” he says. Especially useful is Denali’s compatibility with Microsoft Excel, allowing Riggs to export the data from the General Ledger module and simply email it to auditors. “They do their work offsite, come over to make sure we’re still here, send me a list of things to provide proof for, and we’re done.”
Even though the process is simple, it doesn’t mean the records are. “Denali has the controllability and audit features of a big box system. You can’t simply delete transactions and accounts with historical activity. Instead you must correctly reverse the transactions. You can’t just delete a check. There’s always a record.”
This frees up a little time for Riggs, which he uses to oversee $25 million worth of financial operations.
Riggs says he has an “enterprise approach,” which utilizes the fund system of accounts without having to get bogged down in balancing each and every individual account and fund.
“Denali handles this beautifully. You can run as many bank accounts as you need, and setting up a new bank account literally takes me five minutes or less. Five minutes, and you can start inputting data. And when we transfer money from one fund to a bank account, Cougar Mountain realizes I’m transferring the money and balances out accounts and funds on its own.”
“There’s so much flexibility in Denali,” he continues. “Your big box programs are so rigid and so deep that you have to change your business to fit the software. Denali will mold to fit your business. You don’t have to mold your business to fit the software.”
But what first interested Riggs was the Cougar Mountain story: it began with nonprofits, and the legacy remains in its business model. The software cost Riggs less than other contenders, and Riggs says its post-purchase support is about helping customers, not selling more products.
Transportation through time, on time
Victor Valley has also come a long way since that single bus line of 1970s Victorville.
“When people see a little bus driving down the road, going where they’re going, they don’t realize how much effort went into the transportation services provided,” says Riggs.
This isn’t a bad thing. Although Victor Valley continues to expand and add new services, one thing has never changed: the passengers, whether retirees or soldiers, always know they’ll be able to get where they’re going on the bus.