Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018
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Union: TARTA faces morale issues

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Forced overtime and frequent bus breakdowns are devastating TARTA drivers’ and mechanics’ morale, the head of the transit agency’s operating-employees’ union wrote in a recent letter asking its top administrator to attend a meeting it pitched as both an airing of concerns and an offering of solutions.

But James Gee, the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority’s general manager, said he had a conflicting commitment on the night that Amalgamated Transit Union Local 697 held the meeting in the employee lounge at the main bus garage.

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TARTA recently broke from past practice by putting some new drivers into full-time positions right away, rather than having all work part-time to start.

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He also said the issues raised in the letter from Carly Allen, Local 697’s business agent, trace to two issues with which he is already quite familiar: fiscal austerity and difficulty finding qualified drivers.

“We are worn down and tired. Our families suffer because we are slaves to TARTA,” Ms. Allen wrote near the top of the Sept. 12 letter, in which she said fixed-line drivers “can put in 80 hours a week” and have day-off requests denied, then be disciplined for showing up a minute late for work.

Buses break down “faster than they can be repaired,” she continued, leaving mechanics “frustrated and worried about what’s out on the road.”

And Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service drivers, whose jobs do not require commercial driver’s licenses but do involve more work assisting passengers, have “been overworked and underpaid for years now,” Ms. Allen wrote. Ongoing litigation between the transit authority and the ATU over the proper venue for resolving the paratransit drivers’ contract negotiations — stalled since 2011 — benefits only lawyers, she said.

Mr. Gee, who sent Geneva Mason, the transit authority’s human-resources director, in his place to the union’s Sept. 19 meeting, said that while some mandatory overtime had been ordered during the past month, no individual had been so directed for more than a cumulative eight hours, and never for longer than two hours at a time.

Repeating statements he has made often to the transit authority’s board of trustees, Mr. Gee said TARTA suffers from a shortage of qualified drivers that affects the entire transit industry, and that many who apply for driving jobs can’t pass a drug test or driving-record check.

“Nationally there is a shortage of qualified CDL drivers. We are not exempt, and we’re not alone in that,” he said, adding, “We have such high standards for the new employees we bring in.”

TARTA recently broke from past practice by putting some new drivers into full-time positions right away, rather than having all work part-time to start.

“We still prefer to start them at part-time because it’s such a specialized job,” Mr. Gee said. “But it’s very difficult to find part-time drivers.”

TARTA has 128 full-time and seven part-time drivers, while TARPS has 54 full-time and seven part-time drivers. Mr. Gee said he would fill two more full-time and 19 more part-time TARTA driving jobs if he could find suitable candidates, while the optimal number of paratransit drivers varies from week to week depending on how many rides are requested.

TARTA driver pay now ranges from $15.62 to $22.31 per hour, while the top of the scale for TARPS drivers is $14.38 — less than rookie fixed-line drivers receive.

Mr. Gee conceded that “it’s always a threat” that a driver it trains who then qualifies for a commercial license then leaves for a higher-paying job, “but many folks who come through our training process and drive with no problems for a while, stay.”

According to a list Mr. Gee provided to The Blade, 15 of 25 drivers the transit authority hired this year were still with the agency as of late September. Of the 10 who left, five were listed as having resigned, one left because of a child’s death, three failed their probationary periods, and one simply stopped showing up after four weeks.

TARPS had an even harder time with retention, with only 12 of this year’s 28 hires still on the payroll in late September. Most resigned, but one abandoned the job, another failed probation, and one was fired for absenteeism.

When Toledo Public Schools reinstated bus transportation two years ago, the already aging TARTA fleet became older overnight because the authority scrounged surplus buses from other transit agencies to cover its expanded operation.

“We have a very old fleet and it is absolutely a money issue,” said Mr. Gee, whose arguments in favor of a recent proposal to switch to a 0.4 percent sales tax from TARTA’s current 2.5 mills in property levies included increasing revenue available to provide local matches for federal grants to buy buses.

But as it had the year before, the sales-tax proposal failed to get on the Nov. 6 Lucas County ballot because admitting the county as a TARTA member jurisdiction did not get approval from the authority’s existing seven members. Citing misgivings about TARTA’s fiscal management, a 2-1 majority of the Sylvania Township trustees rejected the proposal in July.

Mr. Gee said the transit authority now must decide whether to try again for the sales tax in 2019 or consider trying to boost its revenue with a larger property levy. The agency collects levies of 1 mill and 1.5 mills, and the smaller of the two expires in 2020, meaning that it could be put on next year’s general-election ballot for replacement.

Replacing that tax with one of a higher amount would risk losing the existing revenue if such a proposal were rejected.

“It’s hard to imagine having three separate property taxes, but that’s one of the things we will have to look at,” Mr. Gee said.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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