Tough decisions, in their own words

Have you seen the agenda for Friday’s board meeting?  It’s packed!  Every board vote is important, but the three that have understandably generated the most feedback are the FY2011 budget, MetroAccess policy changes, and the January 2010 service changes.

Many people spoke very passionately at public hearings for all three issues in the last few days.  People expressed their worries about how these proposed changes and budget decisions will affect them.

Originally I was going to blog about how these are difficult decisions, etc.  But I think our board chair, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, summed it up really well at the end of yesterday’s budget public hearing, with an additional comment from Vice Chair John Langmore.  So here it is in their own words (with transcript pasted below the video clip along with additional comments from today’s Finance/Audit Committee meeting):

Chairman Mike Martinez:  I want to just make a few closing comments.  Obviously we take your input very seriously.  And we are making some very difficult decisions.  I realize that an increase in any fare where there was no fare at all is extremely difficult to accept and understand.  But those aren’t the only things we’re doing.  And it isn’t the only folks that are being impacted by the decisions we have to make.  You saw the service changes earlier.  Those are- many of our other customers as well that ride fixed route- they’re going to be impacted.  We have to create efficiencies but at the same time maintain the service as much as we possibly can.  Some of the things you see in the budget this year, these are cost drivers.  These are not add-ons.  These aren’t things we are adding to this year’s budget.  We knew that a $4 million payment would be due for our MetroRail cars.  We knew that when we purchased them several years ago.  We knew that the cost of our labor contract with StarTran was going to cost us this year.  A million dollars, almost, to pay our employees a fare wage and give them a raise in a very difficult time.  We’re trying to balance all of these things out, and they’re not always easy.  And there’s still more time.  And this board will certainly take all of your input into account with any final budget that we adopt this coming Friday.  So I want to thank you all for your participation and your input.  And yes… we have a lot of questions as well.  Online you’ll find every single financial transaction that this agency makes, from 2-cents all the way up to the highest number possible.  We encourage you to look at that.  We encourage you to help us.  Your ideas don’t fall on deaf ears, your suggestions.  We are a mere board of eight members, and we sincerely need your input and help in putting any changes in place to make the agency better.

Vice Chair John Langmore:  I just want to thank everybody for coming out.  Irrespective of how we vote relative to your individual position- some of these things that the group has advocated for today and over the course of this long time of looking at the budget – some of them are mutually exclusive.  If we do one person’s cause, we’re not going to be able to do another’s.  So all I want to say is that we really appreciate everyone coming down and making themselves heard.  I know it’s time out of your day and rest assured that we factor your comments into our votes on the budget later this month.  I just want to thank you for your time.

And here are few quick comments from this morning’s Finance/Audit Committee meeting which included discussion about the critical importance of improving the accessibility of bus stops (these may not be exact quotes, but they’re close):

Langmore: [In the past] we haven’t done right by the disability community… I don’t want us to be in that same position next year.

President/CEO Linda S. Watson:  We’ve got to get the projects done.  We’ve got to make good progress on this.  We can find some people to work on the permitting [to speed up the process]. We’ve got to make it a priority.

Regarding proposed changes to the MetroAccess policies:

Board Member Ann Stafford:  We’re adopting a policy based on the long-term well being of our customers and the community at large [not the immediate financial need in one fiscal year].

4 thoughts on “Tough decisions, in their own words

  1. Bob

    Hard economic times means increased ridership. An increased fare is still a bargain to many people. The board should focus to monitor hold staff accountable so that the budget is not wasted on the unnecessary. I did read the budget. For the most part it did seem reasonable. There were some items which need further study such as legal fees and contractual services. Both of these items are indicators of other areas gone wrong and / or leakage of revenues to outside sources. It would be good to question if the premium being paid now for outside services is in our best interest particularly when there is plenty of strong local talent available at a discount.

  2. ky

    Two important points about the costs of Cap Metro

    1) Star Tran remains the single costliest element of the agency, and also the simplest to control and reduce. The Sunset Report plainly spells out the enormous cost savings of competitive bidding the contracted bus services, which would also be just abiding with the law in Texas. When this has been discussed in the past persons at Metro muddy these waters by implying that the drivers union has some lifetime deal, which they plainly do not, and the right of contracting out is already written into the labor agreement. The implication that this is somehow too complicated to deal with is false.

    Metro has commissioned study after study by consultants that tell them to save money they need to change this or that controversial item, fares, Metro Access policies. But the fact is that these little tinkerings that are being discussed are in fact microscopic financial differences in the here and now. The Metro Access policy changes will not save the agency millions of dollars, not this year, not in 10 years. Competitively bidding bus operations would save the agency millions, this year and every year to come.

    2) Capmetro has publicized cost ratios for departments to justify the sales pitch for policy and other changes, for instance “Metro Access is 17% of the agency budget”. While it is a fact that operations is expensive as mentioned above, the cost formulas that Cap Metro presents really only tell about half the story. Cap Metro has always used a cost allocation formula that attributes Capital Metro overhead cost back into the reported costs of Star Tran operating departments. (So Metro Access is really more like 9% stripped of agency overhead) While to a degree this is fair there are a couple of things wrong with this; 1)Capmetro administrative overhead is extremely high 2) there is no totally clear manner to track or account for actual Capital Metro costs incurred in supporting the Star Tran corporation, or specific departments or areas.

    For 20 years Capmetro has failed to have a proper contractual and financial relationship between Capmetro and Star Tran that is spelled out clearly and legally in contracts that protect the public interests, and provide a clear and precise means to comprehend operating costs and agency overhead costs. The Sunset Commission agrees with me, which is why they have already mandated that Capital Metro finally takes action to comply with the law by competitively bidding bus operations currently performed without any real contract by the fake entity Star Tran. Next year brings the hope that these outside forces will finally bring these long overdue changes to fruition.

  3. Bob

    KY, I think that I agree with you. One thing that bothers me is that management “commissions” studies. Many times the conclusions are made as instructed. It is time that management stop seeking the cover of a study and take accountability for their decisions that drive performance.

    In my opinion it is okay to make a decision and it not turn out incorrectly. It is not okay however to always look for cover with such things as expensive studies. alternatively, there are a number of riders who are educated and can serve vet proposed ideas.

    1. ky

      bob,
      You can imagine how many consultant reports sit in Capital Metro drawers that collect dust, unused. I can tell you one for sure that cost over $250,000 a couple years ago. It was a facility study report for all Cap Metro facilities, looking at how they use buildings over time. The report was never publicized and put before an open board meeting. You are right, usually if the report says something they need cover for they will disclose it.

      If it states something they do not agree with the report goes in a ($250,000) drawer.

      Look back at the Cap Metro North Operations $40 million + facility tucked away on Burnet Road area which is only about half used, and the Serta building next door that they also purchased that is filled with asbestos to see an example of mis-steps. Again, this was during Metro’s massive burn off of capital that landed them with no money in the bank, spending massive amounts on reports and infrastructure.

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