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.)
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.”
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.