Crowley, Transit Officials Oppose ‘Transit Rangers’ Backed By Drivers
Board fails to get administration buy-in for transit rangers, pitting union against Crowley and MCTS.
Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus operators pleaded Monday night with the Milwaukee County Board to include funding for a new security force known as “transit rangers” in the 2024 budget.
Bus operators and their representatives from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 spoke against County Executive David Crowley‘s 2024 recommended budget, which would add $1.3 million in additional spending to the existing security contract with the private firm Allied Universal Security (AUS). The contract was budgeted to cost approximately $2.1 million in 2023.
Operators and the ATU leadership have been pushing for different security strategies and continued to advocate for a change in security at the meeting on Monday. Union leaders even suggested the operators could strike over the issue.
In September, supervisors Ryan Clancy and Peter Burgelis sponsored a resolution that proposed using $3.4 million to create a new transit ranger force with 51 rangers, 5 supervisors and liasons to the county’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Housing Division. This was one of four iterations for new security that came out of a Transit Safety and Security Task Force co-chaired by the two supervisors.
While the board considered the proposal, MCTS circulated an analysis of its feasibility. The study said the proposal was lacking in detail and concluded that it failed to consider the actual upfront and ongoing operational costs required to create such a security force. It also cast doubt on the county’s ability to maintain the new elevated spending in future years, given the structural budget deficits of both the transit system and county government at large.
The proposal also did not account for the need to maintain the existing $2 million AUS contract while the county transitioned to a new county-run security force.
The board endorsed the proposal, with supervisors explaining that the recommendation was the beginning of a longer process. “It’s intended to be the first step, not the finish line,” Clancy said.
Sup. Shawn Rolland was in the minority when he abstained from voting on the transit ranger proposal. He urged his colleagues to hold off on endorsing a policy recommendation until it could be fully fleshed out in cooperation with MCTS. He compared the action to the board’s endorsement of the Domes task force proposal in 2019; when there was also a plan, but no buy-in from the administration.
Crowley returned the resolution to the board unsigned. He agreed safety and security was an issue, but could not support the proposal endorsed by the board. “I have chosen not to veto this resolution because we share the same goal – the safety and security of all who utilize and interact with our transit system,” Crowley said.
The county executive echoed the MCTS analysis, and said the costs associated with creating a new county security force, “would threaten the modest gains we have made toward addressing the fiscal sustainability of MCTS and therefore threatens our ability to maintain routes.”
2024 Budget Proposals
Burgelis and Clancy both drafted amendments to the 2024 budget aimed at creating the transit rangers force, though, this time they did not work together.
Clancy’s proposed $5.6 million to create the new security force in 2024, using $1.3 Crowley earmarked for expanding the AUS contract for part of the cost. Burgelis proposed $3.1 million to create a pilot program of transit rangers in 2024. Clancy’s did not gain the support of the budget committee, as it used funding that supervisors were planning to apply elsewhere in the budget. Burgelis withdrew his amendment after county research staff noted that it would cause the county to exceed the state-imposed limit on property tax spending.
Transit officials expressed unequivocal opposition to moving from a security contractor to creating a new county security force for the transit system.
“First, [Milwaukee County Department of Transportation] and MCTS do not, do not, support bringing transit security in house in any form,” Donna Brown-Martin, MCDOT director, told supervisors on the budget committee. “Not even a pilot program.”
Brown-Martin said MCTS is “open to exploring new options” but disagrees that transit rangers would offer an advantage over the private contractor. Like the private security, the rangers would not be sworn law enforcement officers and would still need to call law enforcement for serious security incidents. “Their experience, pay scale and responsibilities will be similar to what is already in place,” Brown-Martin said.
The director also responded to something Clancy said: that many of the current AUS security officers would sign on to be transit rangers.
“If you’re utilizing the same staff – aside from a different uniform and better benefits – taking the program in-house would not have any changes or benefits beyond what we’re doing today,” Brown-Martin said.
The higher personnel costs needed for the new force would also mean that security staffing levels would not be much different than what is currently available through AUS, Brown-Martin said, and potentially lower.
“If budget levels cannot be sustained, we run the substantial risk that we will not be able to maintain this new department and that we will need to reduce on-the-street-security levels below what their staffing today,” Brown-Martin said.
MCDOT and MCTS support the county executive’s proposal, which Brown-Martin said offers the opportunity to build upon what already exists. “It is not asking for two separate programs at enormous prices.”
The high-level feasibility study by MCTS suggested it would cost approximately $7.2 million to create and operate the program in the first year, with operational costs of $4.3 million in 2025 and $4.8 million in 2026.
Union Slams County Executive’s Security Proposal
At the county board’s annual public budget hearing, union leaders slammed the proposal to keep AUS.
The union leadership has maintained that AUS is the problem with security in the transit system and that it needs to be replaced. The union endorsed the transit ranger proposal early on in the task force process.
Union leaders like President Donnell Shorter, Vice President Michael Brown and executive board member Kyle Handel were joined by operators also advocating for the transit rangers. Both Handel and Brown said the union membership was prepared to go on strike for security.
“They’re ready to go on strike today, if they don’t get their security,” Handel. “And we really, really have been begging you for anything, anything at all.”
Shorter once again criticized the AUS security, saying that not all the security officers even have driver’s licenses, limiting how many are able to even respond to security calls. “Is this the horse that we want to bet on, this [AUS] team?” Shorter said.
Brown said he’s been fighting for transit security for 10 years and he’s never heard so many phone calls from demoralized operators ready to “just stop and give up.”
“All we want is protection,” Brown said. “How bad is that, that we’re asking for protection?”
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