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.

The contract guarantees that virtually every driver will earn overtime -- for which drivers are paid time and a half -- by setting shifts that routinely exceed eight hours, and by making dozens of extra shifts available to drivers who have completed their regular ones. Virtually all MDTA drivers earn at least several thousand dollars in overtime per year, according to MDTA payroll records.

Most union officers are on the overtime gravy train as well, even though they spend much or all of their working days conducting union business. For example, full-time county-paid shop stewards Johnny Ellis and Sam Milton each received a $36,000 regular salary last year. But because the contract requires shop stewards to be paid as if they were drivers, both also reaped a hefty overtime supplement: Ellis, $17,540 and Milton, $16,600. All paid by the county.

Local 291 reimbursed MDTA for Talley's $64,000 salary, none of which was overtime. The union also paid back the county for book-off time logged by executive vice president Joseph Johnson, who reeled in $36,000 in regular pay and $23,600 in overtime.

Johnson devoted the equivalent of nearly 230 eight-hour days to his union work, according to MDTA payroll records. Ellis put in a whopping 293 days on union business. And, based on his 3000 hours, the tireless Milton worked more than eight hours every single day of the year. "Jesus Christ!" he exclaims. "One of my typical days has consisted of my first phone call at the house pertaining to union business at 5:45 in the morning. And I've been at the union hall until eight, nine, ten o'clock the same day."

Long hours, however, are not exactly wowing county officials these days.

County Manager Merrett Stierheim grants that overtime is inevitable at any transit agency. In an April memo to Miami-Dade County commissioners and Mayor Alex Penelas, Stierheim wrote: "Since it is impossible to make the end of the bus route or a relief point coincide with an exact eight-hour day, and since operators earn overtime after the eighth hour of the workday, some overtime must be paid and is the function of the unique scheduling of transit operations. This average ... is approximately three hours per week and is customary in the industry."

But Stierheim added that Metrobus operations have been incurring a "higher than reasonable" level of overtime expenditures -- about twice as much as transit agencies in similar-size metropolitan areas spend. The reason: Absenteeism is twice as high. On some days a full third of the Metrobus workforce is absent, Stierheim noted. That costs MDTA millions of dollars per year in overtime.

"In transit, absenteeism always runs high because of the very nature of the business," Talley insists. "It's such a stressful job, and it generates such wear and tear on the human body."

Roosevelt Bradley, MDTA's assistant director in charge of Metrobus operations, elaborates: "We have areas where our bus operators are shot at. They throw bottles at them. Passengers get on the bus, they don't want to pay their fare. The fare is $1.25. They want to put in ten cents. The bus operator tells them what the correct fare is. They want to jump and attack him. We even have our bus operators stabbed, shot at. One got rocks thrown at him. The rocks hit him in the face and damaged his eye."

Bradley insists he's been cracking down on bogus absences since he arrived at Metrobus from the Metrorail division two years ago. "We have some employees who just don't want to go to work," he says. "Some of the managers were real lax. I had to demote a lot of folks."

Art Teele believes that the overtime problem is the product of a simple, if misguided, calculation that the union and county have been making for years: "The union doesn't want a lot of people because they want the overtime money," Teele says. "Management doesn't want a lot of people because they think they're saving money. They're not."

Teele's point is this: If the union allowed more drivers, MDTA would have enough to cover all shifts, thus minimizing those who routinely collect overtime. For example, a driver whose regularly scheduled run requires a ten-hour day might be reduced to four days per week. Also, those shifts made available by absences could be given to substitute drivers rather than to regular drivers who have already worked 40 hours.

But Teele notes that transit unions have a history of believing they are entitled to a regular diet of overtime pay. Some New York City bus drivers were making $75,000 in overtime alone back in the Seventies. New York transit officials put a stop to it long ago, he says. "Transit unions have always been a buddy-boy system, a fraternity," he notes. "The union leadership has always been more interested in overtime and retirement than in trying to expand the union base."

Of course, Metrobus drivers will tell you it's not their fault they have opportunities to cash in big. In fact, it's common for drivers to sleep on benches at one of MDTA's three main garages in order to be at the head of the line at 4:00 a.m., when dispatchers begin trying to replace absent drivers. "Those guys who are working overtime now are just trying to pay their bills," insists Garfield Young, who is looking forward to retiring this December after 29 years behind the wheel. He used to be one of the bench sleepers. "I had to do it. I had ten kids!" says Young, a smile tweaking the goatee on his gaunt face.

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.

The dearth of local funding not only limits bus service but hampers the county's efforts to obtain outside funding. "If you're going after federal dollars, the federal officials need to feel confident and comfortable that local dollars are going to be there," Volinsky observes.

While MDTA drains more and more money out of Miami-Dade County's general fund to finance the deficit, its flagging bus service is draining the patience of the last people the agency wants to offend: riders.

For example, a group of 100 riders who were "frustrated, annoyed, and just plain tired of the hassles" signed a petition last December requesting that MDTA expand service on Route 35 (from Florida City to Kendall) from once per hour to once every half hour. "If the bus breaks down or just doesn't show up, that is an additional hour of waiting," wrote Victoria Edwards, who collected the signatures and sent them with a letter to MDTA. "There are times when I have waited over two hours for a bus, and this is no exaggeration."

In January the chief of MDTA's public services division, Ruby Hemingway-Adams, responded in a letter reviewed by New Times: "I am sorry to learn that you and other passengers have been experiencing a great deal of difficulty due to the bus failing to arrive on schedule.... In order to provide the Route 35 with 30-minute service seven days a week would cost approximately an additional $1,000,000 a year." Read: It's not going to happen, especially when MDTA has a $24.5 million deficit.

Edwards, a secretary at Miami-Dade Community College, says she never received the letter. She's still irked. She gets out of work at 4:30 p.m, but often does not arrive at her home in the southern part of the county until 7:30. "The people who have all this control, if they could just take the bus sometime and see what it feels like, they'd be more understanding," she says. "Especially when it feels like 100 degrees out there!"

"This union saves the county more money than any other union, but we don't get any credit for it," Talley argues. Sporting a kelly green TWU polo shirt, he is outside the Miami-Dade Transit Agency's Claude Rolfe Northeast Bus Facility on NE 183rd Street. A large lunchroom, known as the drivers' room, has become a polling station for two days. Inside, the message on one of Talley's campaign posters reads: "Eddie Talley has negotiated three lucrative contracts. Not one single giveback to management."

At one end of the room, next to a bulletin board, are perched two voting machines the union has rented from Miami-Dade County. At five o'clock on May 28, the first afternoon of voting, a wall-mounted television blares news that police have arrested Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez and charged him with electoral fraud. "I ain't goin' to vote twice," jokes a portly woman, clad in dark green slacks and light green shirt, the Metrobus uniform. The quip draws a laugh from the two drivers who process her ballot and put it in a padlocked metal ballot box on one of the tables.

It has been a long day for Talley. This morning in federal court, Judge Donald Graham denied a request by five union members for an injunction that would have halted the vote. The five plaintiffs argued that Local 291's election committee had wrongfully declared some union members ineligible to run. They also claimed it was inappropriate to hold the voting over a 24-hour period because that would invite ballot tampering.

Graham ruled that his court had no jurisdiction over a complaint brought against Local 291 because all of the local's members are public employees. The Florida Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC), a state agency, was the proper forum for such a case, he determined. But in his decision, Graham observed that "one would have to question some of the things that have occurred" in the union's preparation for the election.

Ezell Robinson, a candidate for union vice-president and one of the plaintiffs, blasted the judge's stance on jurisdiction. "If that's the case, we don't have a day in court," he declared.

Union squabbles have not always taken place in the courtroom. In 1992 the northeast bus garage lunchroom was the scene of a melee that is still talked about. Former union transportation vice president Charles Anderson landed in jail, charged with attempted murder. Anderson spent a year at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, during which time he ignored the advice of public defenders to plead guilty to lesser charges. He eventually represented himself and was acquitted.

Anderson believes that Talley and others were intent on luring him into the fight, to get him suspended and thus removed from the local's executive board. "I was disclosing the corruption within the union. I was pointing out that Miami-Dade County was violating the contract with the union," Anderson claims. "The county was forcing drivers to drive raggedy buses that shouldn't have been on the street. Drivers were driving more than twelve straight hours per day, which was a violation of federal law. Guys were falling asleep at the wheel and having crashes. And nobody was addressing that. I started talking about those things."

In 1996 U.S. District Court Judge James L. King dismissed Anderson's attempt to be reinstated as a county employee. Anderson has filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta. He is also suing the division superintendent at MDTA's Coral Way garage, Elizabeth Barfield, for filing a false police report against him the day of the fracas. On May 29 Circuit Court Judge Amy Dean denied a county motion to dismiss the case.

Regarding Anderson, Talley shakes his head. "All I can say on brother Anderson is that it was a most unfortunate incident that happened to him." As for Robinson, Talley calls him and his co-plaintiffs "a bullshit crew" who tried to stop the election because they knew they couldn't win.

In their campaign, Robinson and presidential candidate Wallace Toomer homed in on a deal Talley reached with the county last September, a week after signing the current contract. In the deal Talley agreed to drop grievances against the county for contracting out $100 million in transit agency work they believe TWU members should have had first dibs on. In exchange the county agreed to credit Local 291 with $43,555. Robinson maintains Talley sold out union members for "peanuts. I couldn't sell a whole group of people down the river for that," scoffs Robinson, who has logged eighteen years as an MDTA bus driver.

Even more egregious, Robinson says, is a provision in the most recent contract that provides a one-time payment to Talley himself of up to $25,000. That provision dates to legislation the county commission passed in 1996, which authorized retroactive county pension payments to four of Talley's precedessors.

In Miami-Dade County, presidents of public employees' unions typically receive their salaries from their unions. The county pays their pensions. For many years, though, TWU Local 291 presidents did not receive county pension payments. Instead, they received smaller pension payments provided from their union.

By the time Talley became president, however, the county was paying his pension. "I introduced that legislation on behalf of Claude Rolfe," Art Teele recalls. "The resolution wasn't designed for Talley. It was designed to correct past discrimination."

But last year MDTA managers saw fit to apply Teele's measure to Talley anyway. In fact, they added it to the latest contract with Local 291. As a result, Talley received his regular county pension, plus an additional pension payment from county coffers.

Talley says it was the county's decision to pad his pension. Regardless of how the extra payment looks on paper, he insists he's worth every penny. "I lose a lot of money by serving as a full-time union officer," he points out. "I get paid 50 hours a week straight time. I'm a labor leader and I don't even get overtime. How contradictory can you get?"

Talley's sense of entitlement is impressive. So too was his showing at the polls. When election officials counted the ballots on May 29, Talley had collected 597 votes, to 449 for his opponent Wallace Toomer. Johnson easily beat Robinson and one other challenger for executive vice president. Most of Talley's fourteen-person slate was re-elected. (County election officials did find duct tape on the ballot boxes where fraud-proof seals should have been. Robinson promptly filed a complaint with the Metro-Dade police department and the State Attorney's Office.)

In the end, most drivers voted with their wallets. With plenty of overtime shifts and days off for those able to finagle them, they saw no reason to mess with the status quo.

Younger drivers especially seem thrilled at the prospect of clocking $90,000 per year in overtime. "That's wild," says Leo Michaels as he cruises down Collins Avenue through Miami Beach, on the T Route. Michaels says he had no idea his senior colleagues earned so much money. If he sticks around long enough, he will too. Courtesy of Miami-Dade County's taxpayers.

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