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Dave Davis, MTD chair, exclaims of possible loss of federal funds: “This is a major structural change.”

Paul Wellman

Dave Davis, MTD chair, exclaims of possible loss of federal funds: “This is a major structural change.”


Massive Cuts Looming for MTD Bus Riders

Four Lines Face Outright Elimination, Another 13 Threatened With Reduced Service


Sunday, July 28, 2013
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It’s unclear just how many phone calls Ann Comer — Metropolitan Transit District chief Sherrie Fisher’s designated fall guy — has gotten from Santa Barbara bus riders alarmed about massive cuts in their bus service. But clearly, not as many as Fisher had hoped. Fisher had gone so far as to post Comer’s phone number and email address on the wall — via slide projector — at a public hearing held Wednesday to discuss just how bad those cuts could be.

More than 100 people showed up to speak their piece and hear the various ways MTD officials have devised to hack, trim, and eliminate enough bus trips and bus routes to offset the $4.6 million worth of federal transit funds MTD might not get. Translated into crude figures, the picture is undeniably stark. Unless funding is restored, 50 MTD bus drivers could lose their jobs. And MTD would be forced to cut service by 30 percent. Fisher told those in attendance not to bother calling their state, federal, or local elected officials; they’re already supportive. Instead, she urged those in attendance to contact Comer. Comer is the Division Chief for the Department of Labor’s Statutory Programs, which makes her the key point person in a triangulated high-stakes showdown taking place between California Governor Jerry Brown, the Department of Labor, and the Teamsters Union over pension fund reform and collective bargaining rights.

Caught in the immediate crossfire, however, is MTD and the $4.6 million it may or may not get. But so too are 20 other transit districts throughout the state of California. At peril is $1.2 billion in federal transit funds these agencies had been banking on. Without the money, that’s a whole lot of riders seriously out of luck.

“I think they’re going to get a lot of phone calls,” Fisher told the crowd, speaking of Comer and her office. But by the time anyone attending could have called, Comer was already gone. According to the message Comer left on her answering machine, she would not be at work Thursday afternoon. Nor would she be at work at all on Friday, she explained, due to medical matters. Whatever the reason, there’s something perversely appropriate that Comer was not there to receive the incoming communications. (Comer, by the way, had given Fisher permission to post her name and number.)

George Amoon, Sherrie Fisher and Jerry Estrada of MTD outline choices that ranged from bad to worse in terms of service cuts.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

George Amoon, Sherrie Fisher and Jerry Estrada of MTD outline choices that ranged from bad to worse in terms of service cuts.

For months, Fisher had tried to get someone from the Department of Labor on the phone but without success. Ultimately Fisher would make contact — several weeks ago — but it took the intervention of Congressmember Lois Capps to arrange the conversation.

The discourse at Wednesday’s well-attended meeting was both moving and conspicuously devoid of the finger-pointing and chest-thumping typical of such sky-is-falling sessions. By contrast, much genuine regard and affection was expressed by the speakers for the bus services provided by MTD and for the bus drivers themselves. A couple of speakers went out of their way to express support for the Teamsters Union and the sanctity of the collective bargaining process. Only one speaker spoke disparagingly about the union.

“We are heartsick about even having to discuss it,” said Fisher before rolling out a menu of possible cuts. Under one scenario, at least four lines would be eliminated outright, including downtown Santa Barbara’s crosstown shuttle and the bus line to the Mission. But for 13 other lines, the frequency of service would be reduced on weekdays to the level of service now provided on weekends. For those, weekend service would disappear altogether. In this smorgasbord of pain and suffering, there was something for nearly everyone not to like. “These cuts are draconian at best,” said one speaker. Esther Trujillo, speaking for UCSB’s 3,200 graduate students, said the loss of weekend bus service would prove devastating to 80 percent of the grad students who relied on MTD. While classes may only be taught on weekdays, she stressed much critical work takes place on campus during weekend hours.

An employee at Hillside Houses on Las Positas Road — a residential facility for the developmentally disabled — said residents and workers alike relied on weekend bus service for grocery shopping and other necessary excursions. Cottage Hospital is open seven days a week, the MTD board was told by many speakers, and reduced weekend service would make it extremely difficult for countless hospital workers to get to work on time. A couple of seniors living at St. Vincent’s noted that many residents have given up their cars and relied on MTD to get where they needed to be. Likewise, the board heard from Emily Courtney, a transit dependent Devereux resident who had to gather herself several times to maintain her composure. “I’m pleading with you guys not to cut the weekend services to lines 12 and 24. Those lines are my lines, OK!?”

Perhaps most theatrical was Gordon Givertz, who estimated he rode the bus 100 times a month. The express lines now on the chopping block, he said, were how he got to work on time. Givertz took exception to the Plan A and Plan B choices put to the crowd by MTD. “If you’re asking me for Plan A or Plan B,” he said, tearing the sheet of paper in half, “I’m for Plan Santa Barbara.” The MTD board heard from several women whose remarks — delivered in Spanish — were translated into English. Speaking of the importance of education to future generations, Francisca Laerdo said the proposed cuts would inflict significant damage on Santa Barbara’s future. “This is very big, very serious,” she said. “It gives me great sadness this is happening and it will affect all of us.”

More than 100 people showed up last at Wednesday's emergency meeting, and an overflow room opened up. The discussion was long on specifics about possible cuts, but much shorter about the search for other funding sources or the pursuit of legislative remedies.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

More than 100 people showed up last at Wednesday’s emergency meeting, and an overflow room opened up. The discussion was long on specifics about possible cuts, but much shorter about the search for other funding sources or the pursuit of legislative remedies.

In all, 24 people would testify. Most spoke of how reliant they were on MTD for fundamental transit needs and how disruptive the proposed cuts would be for them and others. One asked what plans MTD had made to secure alternate funding sources so that such cuts were not necessary. Several suggested how certain bus routes could be consolidated or re-drawn rather than cut. A few urged MTD to calibrate its cuts to minimize scheduling problems for workers at Cottage and Sansum, as well as students at UCSB and City College. Olivia Uribe with the Latino Democrats urged the board to first exhaust its reserves and dip into its unallocated capital funds before imposing any of the proposed reductions. MTD received an angry earful from a middle-aged man who complained obliquely about the Teamsters, faulted the MTD presentation for being unclear, and who complained of overcrowded buses. “If you ride the subway in New York City, you worry about being knifed,” he said. “But if you ride the buses in Santa Barbara, you worry about people falling on you.” Then he added, “If you cut these services, we’re not coming back. I’ll go back to driving my car.”

As grumpy as his delivery may have been, the threat is one members of the MTD board take seriously nonetheless. Equally grumpy in tone — but far more strategically illuminating — were the comments made by a middle-aged woman, who initially expressed considerable vexation because she said repeated calls made to Congressmember Lois Capps’s office on the subject of the MTD cuts had gone un-answered. After she finished excoriating Capps, she lambasted the MTD boardmembers for failing to reach out not just to Capps, but to all the California congressmembers who represent transit districts in similar hot water. “There’s power in number,” she exclaimed. “Don’t send one letter,” she said with more than a hint of impatience and exasperation. “Send a letter signed by everyone in the state. That’s where the power is. It’s not in Santa Barbara.”

For the record, Capps did in fact insert herself into the issue, arranging a conference call held several weeks ago at which time officials from the Department of Labor conferred with MTD officials and also with representatives of Teamsters Local 186, which represents MTD workers. Based on that conversation, it appeared that the framework for a partial and temporary solution — one that would allow MTD to receive $2.3 million — had been arrived at. Since that exchange, MTD has submitted mountains of paperwork, but Fisher insists no movement has taken place at the federal level.

The problem started when the pension reform act — passed by the California legislature last year and championed by Governor Jerry Brown — went into effect this January. That groundbreaking legislation — designed to address colossal revenue shortfalls in the state’s two major retirement funds for public employees — required new employees to pay a greater portion of their paychecks into their retirement funds than employees hired before the law went into effect. The law applies to bus drivers with MTD even though they aren’t technically public employees and even though their retirement payments don’t come from any of the financially troubled state retirement funds. In fact, the MTD drivers participate in a Teamsters-run pension fund which is overseen by the federal government. And it is, by all accounts, healthy and flush.

Still, by a quirk of bureaucratic technicalities, Brown’s pension reform act mandated that MTD adopt the new two tier pension system, something bitterly, almost religiously, opposed by the Teamsters. As a matter of principal, the Teamsters — like many labor unions — contend that changes to the pension system must be negotiated at the bargaining table, not by legislative fiat. As a tactical and practical matter, the Teamsters are loathe to allow its smaller bargaining units — like the drivers at MTD — to accept such conditions for fear of setting a dangerous precedent that could pose problems for drivers negotiating with major employers like UPS. MTD and its drivers have been operating without a contract for the past year, but are still in contract talks. When the pension reform act went into effect, MTD was legally compelled to insist on imposing the new requirements. Predictably, the Teamsters objected.

What gave those objections new weight are federal rules and regulations adopted by the Department of Labor that require transit districts receiving federal funds bargain in good faith with their employees. Typically, MTD receives about $4.6 million a year in federal transit funds, distributed in two equal pulses six months apart. That’s about 21 percent of the district’s total operating budget. As an important formality, the Department of Labor checks with Teamsters Local 186 before such funds are released to ensure that MTD management is not violating federal rules and regulations governing collective bargaining. This year, when the Department of Labor contacted the Teamsters, Local 186 filed an objection, citing the imposition of new pension terms and conditions included in the pension reform act. Based on that, the Department of Labor put a freeze on any federal transit funds going to MTD.

To date, the Department of Labor has yet to determine that this actually violates federal law. It has yet to determine anything one way or the other. That’s true for MTD and it’s also true for all but one of the other affected transit agencies. And given the number of transit services involved, that’s become a major problem. MTD and the Teamsters agreed that the first pulse of federal money — $2.3 million — was slated to be issued before the pension reform act went into effect this January. The two have joined forces to lobby the Department of Labor for release of that first payment, but to date, there’s been no movement. Without these funds, MTD estimates it will have to cut services by 30 percent no later than January. It will make it that far only by cannibalizing reserves and some capital funds. But even with that first $2.3 million, MTD will find itself back in the same leaky boat it’s in right now come January.

At the state level, Assemblymember Luis Alejo introduced a bill that would have exempted transit districts from the provisions of the governor’s pension reform bill. That bill, by all accounts, is floating face down in the water, never having been reported out of committee. But it’s not officially dead. While this mess has reportedly captured the attention of the federal representatives in the affected transit districts, they are allegedly waiting to see what happens with the Alejo bill. (It’s rumored that Governor Brown would veto the bill should it ever land on his desk; to maintain political credibility, he can’t allow so monumental a bill as the pension reform bill be tampered with so soon after passage. And he certainly can’t allow such tampering to benefit a union as unsympathetic with the public as the Teamsters.)

As the feds wait for the state bill, the state legislators are looking to the feds for action. At last Wednesday’s meeting, Capps sent a representative, as did State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. The only elected official to show up was Santa Barbara Councilmember Cathy Murillo, who afterward expressed great frustration at what appears to be a certain train wreck.

In the meantime, all sides are hoping to buy more time. In the case of MTD, it might have to borrow it with interest. MTD officials have approached the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments — which dispenses most of the state, federal, and local transportation dollars spent throughout Santa Barbara County— for help. It remains to be seen what help, if any, SBCAG can or will provide. No one wants to get stuck for the bill if none of the federal funds are released. But no one wants to experience the hell that will ensue if MTD is forced to make such drastic cuts either.

Comments

Independent Discussion Guidelines

Thanks for the excellent article. I've only been able to catch part of the meeting on Ch 18, but was the other option of raising fares brought up to be considered? Obviously, this is not a good solution, but since many of the potentially affected riders are workers, perhaps they (and other employees) would receive a comparable pay increase to cover transport or have the transport to work costs itemized with receipts to be reimbursed.

And students, SBCC, not represented at that meeting, as well as UCSB, should pay the actual costs of their transport, although it is surprising that the $60 assessed to all SBCC students, for instance, does not cover the relatively few who use the MTD.

Here's an interesting recent study from Minneapolis of raising fares: http://tinyurl.com/k5qh95e . It links to a prior article on the arguments for and against subsidizing transit systems: http://www.streets.mn/2013/04/22/the-...

Whatever the final decision, there should be discussion of this, but maybe in a city election year it is too polarizing....

It sounds clearly that this is a matter of the Teamsters refusing to accept the state-mandated Pension Reform Act and having its members pay towards their pensions. Along with contacting Comer were there suggestions made to contact the Teamster leaders?

---tiny point: it wasn't necessary to describe one of the speakers' age: "middle-aged woman", a rather derogatory sexist description in that context when none others were so described. From what I saw most of the speakers could be said to be middle-aged.

at_large (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 9:47 a.m. (Suggest removal)

hoping we can save the cross-town shuttle.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 2:07 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Based on the article, it appears to me the root of the problem is a flaw in the Governor's pension reform act ... why are MTD drivers subject to those rules when they don't even participate in the state employee pension plans?

Exempting them would bring a quick end to this fiasco with no harm to the Governor's pension reforms, would it not? Time for Jerry Roberts to investigate!

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 3:01 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Info about a similar situation faced by the Monterey-Salinas Transit District:

http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/loca...

I don't have any horses in this race, but it seems like the Federal Govt and the Teamsters (a private sector union, not public sector) are acting as expected. What doesn't make sense to me is why bus districts are subject to the Governor's pension reforms.

Ironically, the director of the Montery-Salinas Transit District says many of the reforms required by the new public pension laws were already rolled into their drivers' contracts three years ago (prior to Gov Brown's reforms).

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 3:38 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Seems to me the trouble started with the MTD being subsidized by the federal government in the first place.
Why should we be paying federal taxes to subsidized local transporation?

If this needs subsidizing it should be by our local taxes.

I would vote for making it self funding and taking it out for bid. Who know we might get more qualified staff at much less cost than we are currently getting.

loneranger (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 4:33 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The Teamsters are playing hardball on this one. That is the only issue. They don't care who they harm because all they want to do is stop any reform anywhere to any public pension plans. They are doing this up and down the state.

Agree, taking federal cash instead of making this a locally funded operation with realistic employee compensation supported by the local users has distorted the entire situation MTD now faces. Federal funds always come with partisan strings attached that do us ultimately more harm than good. Case in point right now.

Yes, you can raise fees but you can also reduce compensation to a more realistic ratio between local fees and local market forces. Otherwise local bus riders get caught up in other people's political extortion rackets.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 11 p.m. (Suggest removal)

if pensions were commensurate with the cost of living in this area, pensions would go up.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 11:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Great idea Ken. Should we raise bus fares to cover the cost?

Botany (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 11:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Expanded routes will bring more cash as would extended hours. Offer the customers more, not less. The public transportation system should also be promoted as an alternative to drunk driving and have hours that service bith the workers and the patrons. Many employees of late closing establishments would benefit from expanded hours.
Hospital employees and the like would also benefit from expanded hours.
In addition there's the problem of jail inmates being released basically in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. Expanded hours + a bus token = problem solved.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 11:26 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Cost of living for retirees goes down: houses paid off, kids out of school, Medicare kicks in and you get all those great senior discounts.

Public pensions let retirees live like millionaires. Do the math: A $50,000 pension for life is the investment equivalent of one million dollars in the bank earning a guaranteed 5%. Sweet.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 11:31 p.m. (Suggest removal)

You can email the Labor Secretary here: http://www.cecsb.org/mtd-transit-serv...

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 11:31 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Again ... why should MTD employees be subject to the Governor's PUBLIC pension reform rules when MTD employees don't even participate in the state pension system?

According to the Indy's article, that is the key issue which triggered this entire mess.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 12:10 a.m. (Suggest removal)

"Public pensions let retirees live like millionaires."
-- foofighter

Irrelevent. The Indy's article states MTD employees do not participate in any state/public pension plans.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 12:14 a.m. (Suggest removal)

In addition foo acts as if pensioners get a million dollars all at once. Disingenuous, Gandrud style accounting.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 12:29 a.m. (Suggest removal)

nice EB! Foo, good idea to read the article before scrawling your inane BS, stuff like "Public pensions let retirees live like millionaires" -- your obtuse lens prevents you from comprehending even the basic article. I see some pension envy there, sweet.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 4:45 a.m. (Suggest removal)

So expanded routes and hours would take care of the increased pension costs you propose, right Ken? Have you looked at the MTD budget? Obviously, economics is not your strong suit. The MTD is bleeding cash. That's why the elimination of routes is on the table in the first place.

Botany (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 5:21 a.m. (Suggest removal)

From what I see on the lower East, most of the buses are far from full during much of the day; maybe they should be limited to 7-10 and 3-6. Raising the fares will cut even more into the numbers of riders. http://www.sbmtd.gov/fares-and-passes/ At the very least, there should be employer subsidy of their employee riders. (How many are UCSB, city and County workers?)

As for expanded hours, when the existing buses are not fully utilized now, adding more buses doesn't make sense without employer/Cottage, restaurant/bar subsidies.

at_large (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 7:50 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Teamsters over-reached on this one and now are stuck. They did not have their ducks in a row before they decided to make everyone suffer. Their present MTD union members apparently had nothing to worry about so they could easily have signed off on the federal grants.

Instead the Teamsters decided to use their leverage to undo the state pension reform at the top, because in fact they also represent other public workers than just transit workers, who were unrelated to this federal transportation grant.

In playing hardball on this issue, they badly misused the MTD workers and MTD riders. The Teamsters are the ones who have to undo this self-inflicted damage on their own dime. But not until they deny, dismiss, deflect and denigrate everyone else, except themselves.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 8:09 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Public workers who get $50,000 a year have the investment equivalent of $1 million dollars, earning a guaranteed 5% a year.

Simple statement of fact and relevant to KV's claim MTD drivers need better pensions and botany's rebuttal - where will more money come from to pay for "better MTD pensions".

Notice the later distortions of the first statement, which serve only to deny, dismiss, divert and denigrate the facts. But do not change the facts. Public retirees who get $50,000 a year pensions get to "live like millionaires".

The numbers can change since it is rare to find guaranteed 5% interest these days. A $40,000 a year pension is the investment equivalent of guaranteed 4% on a million dollars. $30,000 is guaranteed 3%.

So if you apply the more typical 1% other retirees get on their fixed income investments, to earn that guaranteed $50,000 a year pension, it would take the investment equivalent income of $5million dollars to support that "average" CALSTRS teachers pension.

No way around it, guaranteed defined-benefit public pensions allow public workers to "live like millionaires" when they retire. The point of this being public pensions are not as paltry as some here try to make them. That is all.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 8:20 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Keep voting democrat its working. Now I must go drink more Kool-Aid.....

Priceless (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 2:21 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Maybe if we taxed Kool-Aid we could cover the public union pensions unfunded liability gap? The more you drink in that stuff, the more your pay.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 6:01 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Foo, stick to accounting studies.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 6:28 p.m. (Suggest removal)

With limited bus lines how will spirityanker get to the store to buy more tin foil??

Priceless (anonymous profile)
July 30, 2013 at 7:29 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Yup, I was right, the limited bus line is already effecting your mental stability. Never said "You commented" on this thread. I commented about you..... Or are you to unstable to figure that out all by yourself? Wait a minute, you did say you never commented 99.9% sure. That does leave .01% are you sure??

About "my boss" fire away. You crack me up!!

Priceless (anonymous profile)
July 31, 2013 at 3:16 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Your boss wears combat boots.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
July 31, 2013 at 3:22 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Ha! A reference to Private Pyle of Full Metal Jacket!

"They're payin' for it, YOU eat it".

billclausen (anonymous profile)
July 31, 2013 at 4:55 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Most of SB's problems come from federal funding. For this one we should also credit Jimmy Hoffa.

native2sb (anonymous profile)
August 4, 2013 at 9:52 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Billy Collins & Aimee Mann

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