Wheels of Fortune

Why are the county's Metrobus drivers such a happy lot? Maybe because some earn more than $90,000 per year.

"Everything is nice," says Giacomo Coschignano, smiling through a screened-in window next to the front door of his sprawling one-story house in suburban west Miami-Dade. Things are nice for Coschignano. Extremely nice. After all, the genial, hard-working 59-year-old earned $91,259 last year, more than enough to buy that shiny black Ford Mustang in the driveway. And he reached this prosperity by driving a bus for the Miami-Dade Transit Agency (MDTA).

Driving a bus in Miami-Dade County can be quite profitable these days. Coschignano, who celebrated his 30-year anniversary as a driver in May, was not even MDTA's highest-paid bus operator last year. That distinction, according to agency records, belonged to 58-year-old David Wilks, a 31-year veteran who earned $91,669 in 1997. Although both men refused to discuss their awesome earnings with New Times, records show that each garnered more than $50,000 in overtime. All told, more than 100 bus drivers took home at least $20,000 in overtime pay.

But not everything is so nice at MDTA. The agency is running a $24.5 million deficit, which, along with a larger seaport deficit, has cut the county's cash reserves in half since 1996. Much of MDTA's unexpected shortfall is the result of astonishing overtime payments, occasioned by rampant absenteeism in its Metrobus division.

Questions about excessive overtime were first raised nearly a decade ago, but county officials have done precious little to address the problem. In 1989 then-County Commissioner Clara Oesterle admonished her commission colleagues: "The time has come for Dade County to take back the operation of its transit system from a runaway union that has added millions of unnecessary and wasteful tax dollars to the operation of our buses, Metrorail, and Peoplemover systems." To bolster her appeal, she cited one bus driver's salary: $88,000. Only in the past few months has County Manager Merrett Stierheim asked to review all MDTA overtime.

In the absence of county oversight, one man has been only too happy to take the wheel: Eddie Talley, president of Transport Workers Union of America Local 291, who was re-elected in May for the third time. Even as MDTA bleeds red ink, Talley has managed to carve out three generous contracts with the county. And while Talley has earned the wrath of some fellow union members -- who accuse him of running the local as his own fiefdom -- the county itself has been a faithful ally.

South Florida has never been much for public transportation; especially neglected has been the beleaguered Metrobus system. While taxpayers of other metropolitan areas have agreed to subsidize fares for their bus systems, Miami-Dade Countians have left funding mostly to federal and state governments. And those public sources have been dwindling for several years.

The unsurprising result: a grossly underdeveloped bus system. MDTA's 600 buses rumble along 70 routes from Homestead to the Broward County line. But that fleet size is about a third of what county transit officials deemed necessary for a decent system -- in the early Eighties. Today comparable metropolitan areas have twice as many buses as MDTA. Seattle, for example, runs some 1200; Houston 1100.

MDTA buses posted an average of 197,000 boardings per day last year, according to agency statistics, down several thousand from previous years. Riders generated $50 million, up slightly from previous years. Unfortunately the operating budget for Metrobus is $130 million. And whatever funding comes from Tallahassee and Washington must also help finance Metrorail, MDTA's financially disastrous elevated rail system. That budget last year was $48 million, with revenues of around $13 million.

Compounding these problems has been a legacy of trouble with the local transit union. During the Eighties, Local 291 president Claude Rolfe earned the union a reputation for shady finances. Typically, the local must reimburse the county for all "book-off" time -- those hours that union officers are away from their regular MDTA jobs conducting union business. That includes the full-time president's entire salary. Prior to 1983 Rolfe succeeded in getting the county to absorb a portion of that book-off time. "What the union would do is go into the collective bargaining agreement and have that book-off time written off," recalls Miami City Commissioner Art Teele, a former federal transportation official and former county commissioner.

But in 1983 the TWU International executive committee in New York suspended Rolfe and put the local under the stewardship of the International for nearly a year. The International said Rolfe had withheld tens of thousands of dollars of union dues from the TWU International. MDTA officials said he had also stiffed Miami-Dade County out of tens of thousands more in unpaid book-off time. After an investigation, the State Attorney's Office found no criminal wrongdoing but recommended that the union take steps to prevent future financial mismanagement.

Talley was elected president in 1989, promising to "clean up" the union. He had worked 23 years as an MDTA bus driver. In a campaign flyer from that year, he pledged to fight for a child-care program for his fellow employees. He promised to "police our contract and get all we are entitled to." That policing appears to have paid off.

During his most recent campaign, in May, the 57-year-old Alabama native took credit for managing union dues well. The proof: Local 291's bank account now holds more than $200,000, he says. And he trumpeted his success in once again winning a "lucrative" contract for transit workers. Under the contract, MDTA's 995 full-time bus drivers receive modest salaries, averaging about $27,000 per year; long-time veterans make about $35,000. But as evidenced by Wilks and Coschignano, industrious drivers can reel in more than $50,000 in overtime.

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