Wheels of Fortune

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

Two other provisions in the contract with Local 291 have also added to the overtime bill by hiking the absentee rate: mandatory two-day physicals and a requirement that sick drivers provide notice of their return to work nearly 24 hours in advance. The latter rule often has the effect of turning one day of sick leave into two. To wit: A driver who is out sick on Monday must report by 10:00 a.m. that same Monday his intention to return to work the next day.

It should come as no great surprise that Sylvia Crespo-Tabak, chief of MDTA's Labor Relations Division, greets questions about the Metrobus contract with a sigh. "The physical has evolved into a two-day procedure," she says from her cubicle on the ninth floor of Miami-Dade County's Stephen P. Clark Center. She concedes that the "early notification" return to work rule is a costly and antiquated provision -- a vestige of the precomputer age, when bus dispatchers maintained schedules by hand and needed a day to prepare them: "There are some things in the contract that perhaps haven't kept up with changes in technology."

But the county had to accept those provisions in order to get some concessions on wages from the union, according to Crespo-Tabak. The county uses a so-called step system to set pay levels. In 1990 the county won the right to hire transit workers at step one (currently $11.46 per hour for a bus driver), she explains. Previously, contracts required entry-level pay to be at step five (currently $14.32). "You could take us to task and say that we've been asleep at the wheel. No, we haven't. You have to look at it from the right perspective," she says. She claims that the county's dealings with other public employees' unions have offset "what might be perceived as a loss" created by the TWU Local 291 contract.

Like Bradley and Talley, Crespo-Tabak is quick to point out legitimate reasons that bus drivers take more sick leave than, say, office workers. "If a computer operator gets a cold, it doesn't affect them the same way as if you have a bus operator who has one and nods off at the wheel," she explains. "If you or I have diarrhea, we can just go down the hall."

Miami-Dade County's Office of Management and Budget notified former MDTA director Ed Colby nearly a year ago that spending at the transit agency was out of control. A budget office report issued in July 1997 warned that "excess overtime" expenditures alone accounted for $6.3 million of the deficit for the previous year.

Then-County Manager Armando Vidal chimed in with a memo to Colby: "It is crucial that we have expedient resolution of the FY 1995-96 cash deficit so that we are able to move forward and deal with equally important financial issues that Miami-Dade Transit Agency may be experiencing in the current and future fiscal years." Colby resigned in September, apparently without heeding the warnings.

No one at the county seems to be able to account for officials' inability to staunch the unexpected $24.5 million deficit. "I can't tell you that we nipped it right in time. I think that's hogwash. I think it could have been tackled sooner," says George Burgess, director of the Office and Management and Budget. "I'm not the right person to tell you how much sooner it should have happened. I'm just glad it's being addressed now."

In April Stierheim ordered MDTA managers to work out an absentee reduction plan with Local 291 that would include expediting the two-day mandatory physicals and revising the return-to-work notification rule. He directed that the plan be implemented by May 21. He said he expected the effort to produce savings of at least three million dollars per year. The plan has still not been implemented.

Union president Talley has perennially offered one suggestion for bringing down the absenteeism rate, one with which few could disagree in principle -- subsidized day care for children of MDTA employees. But that's probably not what Merrett Stierheim had in mind when he called for a plan that would save MDTA money.

A $24.5 million deficit might be easier to stomach if MDTA were running an efficient, user-friendly bus system. It is not. More than a third of MDTA's 600 buses are seventeen years old. And they are breaking down more and more frequently. In 1996 MDTA recorded 10,344 "mechanical roadcalls" -- instances in which mechanics were called out to repair buses while en route. Last year the number of road calls increased to 11,301. This year there were 3275 in the first four months. That's about 27 per day. MDTA recently bought 50 new buses, but 220 with more than 500,000 miles on them need to be retired, according to Bradley. Some have 700,000 miles on them. "Right now they should be replaced," Bradley moans.

Because mass transit systems all over the country operate at a deficit, local governments have established a gasoline tax or other taxes to fund the difference. Of the fifteen largest metropolitan areas in the United States, Miami-Dade County is the only one without a local fund dedicated exclusively to mass transit. Two county referendums proposed in the early Nineties would have provided funding for MDTA, but voters defeated them. "If the measures had passed, the county would be up to 1000 buses, I'm sure," says Joel Volinsky, deputy director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research in Tampa.

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