Drivers who operate the city of Fresno’s bus service, known as Fresno Area Express will tell you that despite that some may thing, theirs is not a cushy job.
"It’s the equipment, it’s riding in a seat. You’re constantly bouncing up and down, you’re constantly turning the steering wheel. There’s a number of knee problems, shoulder problems, hand problems, by repetitive motion," says Rick Steitz, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1027.
His union represents FAX bus drivers. "You do the job for a number of years, and for some people, it takes its toll," says Steitz.
He speaks up for the 200 plus drivers whose work rules and practices came under fire during the city’s negotiations with the union. At a city council meeting in December 2012, Steitz defended drivers’ high workers compensation claims.
“Let me talk to you about attendance. There are about 210 bus drivers. On any given day there are between 13 and 23 employees off on work injury. A lot of that has to do with equipment,” said Steitz.
High workers compensation claims, high rates of absenteeism and overtime were all issues in the city’s failed negotiations with the transit union.
“We tried to change some of the work rules and it’s hard to change things once you’ve got them and it’s hard to reach and agreement,” says Fresno city council member Lee Brand.
Brand says the city was also asking for a three percent wage reduction. After 18 months, there was no agreement. The two sides had reached an impasse, and a fact-finder was called in.
“By state law, you bring in a neutral fact-finder/mediator, to look at all of the facts and come up with a report. And both sides meet again, but neither side is compelled to go with the recommendations,” says Brand.
The fact-finder’s recommendation was indeed split, agreeing with some of the city’s proposals and supporting some of the union’s work practices. The independent findings did not support pay cuts. This is what Tony Worthington, a member of the fact-finding panel, and a representative of ATU, told city council members in December.
“These employees have gone four years without a wage increase in this unit, where other employees in this same unit have gotten wage increases. So that was a very big issue to the fact-finding panel, a very big issue. When you look at your attendance, they were running ten employees short.”
Like other city employees, FAX drivers were negotiating with a city with huge budget problems, and looking for ways to save money. So when no agreement could be reached, the city council voted to impose a one-year labor agreement. The agreement included the three percent wage reduction. Rick Steitz is considering the union’s options.
“There are a couple of options. One is to continue to just work under the imposed working conditions. One is to have an economic action, a strike. And the third one which I am currently trying to pursue is to get back to the negotiation table,” says Steitz.
Steitz wants to fight the three percent pay cut and he says he has plan that wouldn’t cost the city any more money. But officials say wages aren’t the only problem. Fresno Area Express is an enterprise department. Just like solid waste, it is a fee based service. The difference is in that while trash generated a surplus, FAX is operating at a deficit.
“The bottom line was the enterprise fund was losing about $1.2 million a year because the gasoline tax, state, federal grants that fund this were all dropping due to the economy,” says Brand.
The funding problem was made worse by the actions of past city council members who were unwilling to raise bus fares. Until 2011, rates hadn’t been raised in ten years. Fresno city council member Oliver Baines says it’s a problem across the board.
“You hear the charge all the time from people in different political circles that we need to run government more like a business. Well I agree to some extent. Government and business are very different but there is some overlap. And at the very minimum, government should charge, when it’s a fee based service, we should charge what it costs to deliver that service to the public,” says Baines.
Just last week the city’s transit rates and services committee recommended the city raise bus rates by 75 cents over five years. It’s not expected to be an easy sale.
“Anytime you talk about raising anything, raising taxes or raising rates, it’s always a fight. And it’s ok, it should be a fight. But what I do believe is that when you’re honest with people and transparent with them and tell them the truth, and the truth is we do have a revenue problem. We do not have a spending problem,” says Baines.
The city’s negotiations with FAX bus drivers, and its decision to privatize the solid waste department are a part of the ongoing effort to find savings in every department, and to generate revenue. While management and labor may disagree on how to accomplish that goal, one thing they will agree on is the budget is in crisis.
“The general fund,” says Steitz, “it’s in terrible shape. I wouldn’t argue that with anybody.”
While some city officials have likened Fresno to cities like Stockton and San Bernadino that have filed for bankruptcy protection, Fresno city manager Mark Scott says Fresno is not going bankrupt, and doesn’t face the same long term liability problems with its pension funds as those cities do.
“In the city of Fresno, we don’t have the long term liabilities, we don’t have a huge amount of debt service for instance. What we do have that is worse than those other cities is a cash flow problem,” says Scott.
A cash flow problem brought on not only by a shortage of revenue but the past administration’s decision to float revenue bonds to help pay for the baseball stadium, parking garage and other projects. City officials say those bonds just about doubled the general fund debt service.
“We not only don’t have general fund reserves in our budget, we’re actually more than $20 million negative in our fund balances,” says Scott.
Scott says the city has no cash reserves to fall back on if anything were to happen. And since revenues aren’t showing much growth, Fresno has to bring its expenses in line with its revenues. That plan includes the $2.5 million in franchise fees the city is getting from the private company that is taking over the trash service.
“And it also includes getting compensation reductions from all of our employees across the board,” says Scott.
Scott says he is seeking a reduction in salaries not because he thinks city employees are paid too much, he says the budget situation leaves him no choice. The alternative would be to lay off more workers.
“I don’t want to go deeper, I think I have to make the cuts in compensation, compensation being 81 percent of our total city budget. And we have to do things like the revenues from the [trash] franchise. If we don’t do that, we’ve got problems,” says Scott.