Mass transit in Escambia County is about to run into a roadblock. Maybe it will only be a detour. Could it become an Autobahn though?
One thing is for sure, the current system is untenable and there will be changes coming.
WHERE THINGS STAND NOW
At Tuesday’s special meeting of the BCC, the issue of transportation employees merging into the county to become county employees was discussed at length.
The goal for the union and the drivers was to bring Escambia County Community Transportation (ECCT) and ECAT under the umbrella of the county. This, had it been done, would have allowed for enhanced pay and benefits for the ECCT drivers who currently do not enjoy high salaries, paid sick days, or benefits that are affordable given their low pay. ECCT drivers provide transportation for disabled and elderly citizens that have no other workable transportation options.
ECAT employees, by contrast, enjoy good salaries, excellent benefits, and these employees work subject to a collective bargaining agreement that is extremely worker friendly. Both classes of employees currently operate under management contracts Escambia County has in place with First Transit of Ohio. ECCT’s contract runs out at the end of June, ECAT’s contract runs through September 30th.
So at last Tuesday’s meeting, the BCC decided to return the functions of ECCT back to the state via this notification of termination of services letter. This course of action was approved by a 4-1 vote. I had hoped we could work out a 1-year bridge contract with First Transit to do a less hurried hand-off of this important service back to Tallahassee, however only two of us on the Dais supported that. Therefore, beginning July 1st, the Community Transportation function will revert back to the state of Florida to manage. (Note, this is and has historically been a state-run service that Escambia County had recently taken on—however with costs approaching $2.8Million for this service alone-
sending this back to the state was a no-brainer)
sending this back to the state was a no-brainer)
Once the ECCT matter was settled, discussion turned to ECAT. Very quickly the conversation turned to bringing all of the drivers and employees of ECAT in-house. The BCC even momentarily had a motion and a second on the floor to do this very thing…Then I intervened and sort of blew that up.
In a nutshell, I stated my significant concern with this, even though I strongly agreed that the current operation of ECAT was bloated, costly, inefficient, and poorly constructed. Despite this reality, I still worried about bringing ECAT drivers on to our health plan—what would that do to our mod rates was a question I asked immediately? The other issue, which for me is non-negotiable, is that I would not and will not vote to bring these drivers and employees back in house without first successfully completing (to the complete satisfaction of the BCC) collective bargaining with the drivers’ union to reach a new more palatable agreement more in alignment with the agreements existing county employees work under (the ones that are unionized). I simply could not, in good conscience and for many reasons I stated at the meeting, agree to have these ECAT employees come back to the County under the existing agreement—something has to change first.
ELIMINATE ECAT and the 4CENT LOCAL OPTION GAS TAX?
But before we even got very far with discussions of bringing ECAT employees in-house, one of my counterparts floated the idea of ending ECAT altogether-- and/or --putting it’s continued operations and concomitant 4cent gas tax before the voters via a 2018 ballot amendment! If that were not enough of an ice-water bucket poured over the heads of ECAT attendees in the room—this idea combined with the termination of the Community Transportation contract blew all of the remaining wind out of their sails…It was such a draconian one-two punch, that I felt sorry for the few ECAT drivers that had endured our marathon meeting—only to hear this item at the end of the long evening.
At the conclusion-there was no definitive resolution to our contract with First Transit-contrary to what some media reported. We still have them, we neither voted to end their fixed route contract nor voted to accept their responsive bid for the next contract-- they are still around until October while the County figures out what to do next with this disaster it created and nurtured…
But as the discussion about ending ECAT altogether ensued and the audience dwindled further, several things stood out to me that bear noting here:
1. We spend roughly $13Million to run the service yearly
2. We serve a little over 1 million riders yearly, this number has declined steadily over the years
3. We only collect about $1Million in toll box revenue from riders (less than 10% of cost of service)
4. We fund about $4.7Million of the operating costs via a 4 Cent Gasoline tax everyone who purchases gasoline in Escambia County pays
5. Much of the additional operating costs come from State and Federal grants
6. Some of our revenue comes from advertisements placed on the buses
7. Some of our bus’ costs are/were paid from grant monies from the Federal Government (cessation of service could require repayment of grant monies expended on equipment)
8. Many routes have only 1-2 riders per hour
9. Employees at ECAT enjoy generously subsidized health insurance policies that cost taxpayers $1.6Million yearly (several employees receive health care subsidies that total $45,000.00 yearly for their family plans)
10. ECAT employees earn overtime after 8 hours worked in a day-regardless of whether or not they work 40 hours total in a week.
11. Holiday pay for drivers is 2 ½ times base rate of pay
12. Within three years, drivers reach the top of the pay scale at ECAT.
So, as even the most casual observer can see, this system devours a lot of taxpayer revenue that comes from a lot of different pots—fortunately not simply from the County’s general fund. Nevertheless, this appears from a close examination to be a jobs program that provides rides to a small number of users. This begs the question that I asked at least three times at the meeting with nobody answering: “Is this a legitimate transportation system, or is it a jobs program for drivers and employees that provide transportation to a small number of citizens? Perhaps that was a rhetorical question but when you serve but a fraction of 1 percent of your County’s population daily on average-----is this really something that can be sustained on the backs of taxpayers going forward (local, state and federal taxpayers)?
THE ECAT/BCC/FIRST TRANIST MODEL: RIDICULOUS STUPIDITY
The only way I can adequately describe just how ridiculously stupid the current state of our public transportation model is requires that I use an analogy. Imagine if you purchased a rental property and decided you wanted someone to manage it for you? Imagine if you negotiated a generous fee for the manager of your property to be paid that would be paid no matter how the manager performed or if the property made or lost money or was even rented at all? Imagine if the manager of your property, not you, was the entity that negotiated with potential tenants dictating every aspect of their lease, to include what the monthly rent would be, what type of appliances (Sub-Zero appliances?) and/or amenities would be included (or built on to the property like a pool or a hot tub?) so that the renters would be completely satisfied? Imagine if you were forbidden to participate at all in the negotiation between your manager and the potential tenant—your only function would be that you would be required to pay for any and everything that was negotiated, regardless of cost?
This would be a train-wreck of the worst sort imaginable—right? Of course it would be. It’s a CLUSTER!
This is what the County has allowed to go on with ECAT and First Transit. First Transit negotiated the CBA and we picked up the tab. Voila, and there you have it, a massive loss and no incentive, in reality, to make the arrangement profitable or even less costly. This is why this must end. It is insanity that I doubt is duplicated successfully anywhere else in the world outside of government. Here is the bottom line: For this arrangement to have ever had any chance of making any financial sense, the amount of restitution for First Transit managing the program should have been benchmarked to the LOGT funding plus grant funding with a small percentage for management and overhead backed out and performance incentives for generating increased ridership, ad revenue sharing, and the lowering of costs added in. Period. This would have provided incentive for them to negotiate a commonsense labor deal and to seriously look at ending non-performing routes and trimming staff to stay within pre-defined funding constraints. But our deal with them provided zero (0) incentive for First Transit to economize, and thus the broken system we have, we deserve. But now I feel confident it will be fixed. Something is going to change, I’m confident of this. I won’t vote to continue a broken, status quo system.
CAN THE PRIVATE SECTOR MAKE THIS ROADBLOCK INTO A DETOUR?
Several ideas are out there for providing public transportation more economically. Perhaps we can be creative and think out of the box and partner with a ride-sharing company or the taxi industry to provide subsidized transportation to county residents in certain areas, at certain times, and for certain reimbursement rates based on a number of factors? This is what I am going to explore over the next several months to get our current mess of a transportation system out of the ditch, and onto the Autobahn. This is a complex problem but there is enough revenue to make something work. I’m working the problem, and I intend to bring a solution. It will be a creative one, it will be a good one, I promise.