Who Will Run the County Buses?
You need a scorecard to follow all the bizarre changes on this issue.
There is never a dull moment at the county courthouse.
But even by the often-perplexing standards that pass for normal there, the handling of the county bus situation seems bizarre. The story as best I understand it, is this: Since 1975, the county bus system has been run by a non-profit, the Milwaukee Transit System (MTS). They won awards for their system from the American Public Transportation Association in 1987 and 1999. But in recent years there have been complaints from supervisors and bus drivers, particularly about the paper transfer system, which has led to thefts and violence on buses.
Supervisors had pushed for a change to paper-less transfer for some time, with Sup. Mark Borkowski complaining at a December 2012 transportation committee meeting that “some of us… have been on this committee a long time, and the tortoise-like pace at which we’re going is very frustrating.”
Then add the fact that system’s funding and resulting service has been declining drastically. As Milwaukee Magazine has reported, buses on the street have dropped from 560 or so in 2001 to about 400 today, and service decreased 20 percent while fares increased 50 percent during that same period.
Much of this has been blamed on cuts by former County Executive Scott Walker, but the county board, which routinely overrode his vetoes, was not able to find any way to maintain the system’s funding.
In short, there were many reasons to revisit how transit was handled, and here was Abele, who styles himself as an efficiency expert. Given that the same group has been running the system for 38 years, why not bid it out and see what kind of deal the county can get, Abele figured. “MTS had been so tortoise-like on going to paper-less transfers, I’m not surprised the county exec tried to shake things up,” says Borkowski.
In July, Abele announced the results of the bidding process: the contract would be awarded to a private vendor, MV Transportation, based in Dallas. It certainly has expertise in the field. The company says it has 204 contracts operating 9,688 vehicles in 26 states, Washington D.C., Canada and Saudia Arabia. The contracts are divided pretty evenly between fixed-route buses for general passengers and specialized paratransit services.
Here’s where things got odd. Milwaukee County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic had not one word to say about Abele’s decision. Nor has any board member, save for Sup. John Weishan, who is generally willing to bash the county exec on any issue. Yet Dimitrijevic and the board made no move – pro or con — on the issue.
There were complaints from MTS, which lost the contract. On August 8, the group sued the county, challenging the decision. Under the law, a county appeal committee hears the complaint, and Dimitrijevic was to decide whether the full board or a committee hears the complaint. She did nothing for three months.
By law the details of the MV contract cannot be disclosed until the MTS complaint is settled. By taking her time on the appeal, this left Abele twisting in the wind, as critics made all kinds of charges against the decision to award the contract to a private company.
Some charged that MV could cut the systems’ routes and fares, but that has always been decided by the county and would not change.
Led by the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents bus drivers, some charged that MV Transportation would cut wages and benefits. News clips show MV has been threatened with worker strikes in a number of cities, including Reno, New York and San Francisco. But that tells you their workers are unionized. The company says that 173 of its 204 contracts — or 85 percent — are with unionized employees. And company representatives have assured the workers they would honor the contract.
MV also had a poor record of service in Fairfield, Calif., where it racked up 295 fines from 2008-2010. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s worth noting this is just one of its 204 contracts.
Is there more to learn about the proposed contract with MV Transportation? Undoubtedly. So why doesn’t the county board move forward on the appeal so the details can be disclosed?
Abele’s office tells me that Dimitrijevic claimed there were legal obstacles to moving forward with the appeal. So on November 8, Abele wrote a memo to the board, saying, “I, like you, am frustrated that I have been unable to share with you the details of the MV contract due to the unexplained delay in scheduling and moving forward with the MTS appeal… I, therefore, ask the Chairwoman to schedule the appeal as soon as possible so we can provide the details of the contract for your consideration. Corporation Counsel has said it would be appropriate to hold the appeal.”
I checked with Corp Counsel Paul Bargren and he says he did indeed say the appeal could go forward. So I emailed Dimitrjevic asking what was the reason for long holdup, and doesn’t this make it impossible for anyone to learn the details of the MV contract?
Two hours later I got my answer, sort of. Bill Zaferos, public information officer for the board, sent me an email announcing that five county supervisors had just been appointed to serve as a committee to hear the appeal. As to why it has taken since August 8 to appoint this committee, Dimitrijevic offered no answer. Zaferos later offered me a statement from county supervisor Theo Lipscomb, who also offered no answer, but did charge that the bid process “may have been tainted in some way.”
Given that Lipscomb was one of five supervisors appointed to hear the MTS appeal, it seems inappropriate for him to prejudge the contract this way. For that matter, why was he answering my email to Dimitrijevic? Explained Zaferos, sort of: “He was most involved in the issue.”
Adding yet more strangeness to this strange affair was the board’s decision on Tuesday to shift operation of the county transit system to county workers, unless the board approves a contract with an outside vendor by April 1. Consider that the county has always retained ownership of the buses, buildings and equipment in the system and specifically made the deal with MTS in 1975 to have them handle the staff — the drivers, mechanics and administrative staff. The idea was that the county would save money on staff costs this way. Given current cost for benefits, wouldn’t this be an even bigger issue today?
Borkowski says he cringed when he heard this proposed. “We have a hard time maintaining what we do now. For us to take this on, I’m not sure how wise this is.”
Abele’s reasons for awarding the contract to MV have been explained. As to why the board is so opposed, it’s unclear. I’m guessing supervisors have a concern about the fate of union bus drivers, but they haven’t said so. It’s a legitimate issue in my book, but it would be nice to see some facts and information presented on this subject.
Of course the other reason for opposing this is precisely because Abele proposed it. The relationship between board and executive remains toxic, and Abele doesn’t help matters with such loftily pompous comments as these: “I wish our disagreements weren’t rather self-evident in their wrongness.” Paging Thurston Howell III.
Meantime, MV continues to work hard to get the Milwaukee contract. They have no idea what they are getting into.