CINCINNATI -- As the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority gets ready to ask voters for a sales tax increase for better bus service, concerns over mismanagement of Cincinnati Metro and a looming budget crisis continue to surface.
It's gotten so troublesome that the transit authority's board of trustees -- that's the body that governs bus operations -- has asked Metro's general manager and the local labor union's president to enter into mediation, the I-Team has learned.
SORTA spokesperson Brandy Jones said in an email to WCPO the board's new vice president, Maurice Brown, requested the mediation as issues with bus operations continue to accumulate.
The beleaguered Metro bus system is facing more than its fair share of obstacles. Aging buses, a fatigued staff and a gaping budget deficit -- to name a few -- threaten Metro's ability to maintain current service levels, let alone expanding.
Troy Miller heads up the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 627. He said he has repeatedly tried raising concerns to Metro's general manager, Dwight Ferrell, over low staffing and inadequate facilities.
"He don't return my calls, numerous emails," Miller told WCPO. "The vice chair and the chair of the SORTA board sat down and tried to bridge that gap because we don't talk."
Ferrell acknowledged his and Miller's strained interactions: "My relationship with the union president is not what I would like it to be, no," he said.
The I-Team sat down with Miller to hear some of his concerns, and then took those to the man in charge for answers.
Not enough drivers
"Probably the biggest concern is not getting the buses out on the road because we have a shortage of operators," Miller told WCPO. "We’re not able to serve the public and get the buses on the road."
Jones said as of Jan. 25, Metro was short 29 bus operators.
Miller blames the staffing shortage on a new training program that he describes as a one-and-done deal for new drivers.
"We’ve had a lot of bus operators come here. One mistake and they’re out," Miller said. "The turnover from our view is pretty high. They’ve made it so tough to keep people here."
Miller sees the result as a waste of funds, paying to hire and train employees that don't last with Metro for more than a few months.
"That’s just an extra cost of money we are wasting," he said. "I think we need to look at the training system and how it’s being done. It’s got to be looked at."
Ferrell acknowledged the high standards he sets for his staff: "I know that we are in the process of recruiting heavily for bus operators, but we’re also expecting the people that come into this position, there’s a pretty high standard, for both accidents and attendance," he told the I-Team.
Attendance is also a struggle for Metro staff. Low staffing levels usually means working longer hours, particularly for drivers, Miller said. This leads to more drivers having to call off work due to fatigue.
Ferrell also recognizes this dilemma, but didn't mention a specific cause.
"I won’t speculate on the why, but what we do know is it’s localized to a particular facility, and we get hammered on Mondays and Fridays," he said.
SORTA recently has also implemented a smoking prohibition among their employees. Ferrell said "it's possible" that might also be creating a staffing challenge. The rationale behind the choice was to lower health insurance costs, he said.
"It was difficult for us to get health care in the fully insured market. So for 2017 we made the decision to self-insure," he said. The decision saved Metro about 30 percent -- roughly $3 million -- in insurance coverage expenses.
For Miller, the driver shortage is an even bigger factor in Metro's struggles than the condition of its aging fleet, roughly a third of which is too old.
Miller said these factors have led to a dip in staff morale.
"I hear a lot of employees complain. A lot of employees are concerned when they come in the garage if they’re going to have a job the next day," he said.
"I’ve brought that to the SORTA board’s attention more than once."
Miller says the problem lies in what he calls a disconnect between the general manager and the employees.
"I’d like to see him engage the actual employees (to find out) what’s wrong, to see what the issues are," he said.
Ferrell's board evaluation reflected this concern, identifying outreach to the board and staff as an area where he scored lowest.
Ferrell, himself a former bus operator and ATU member, said his response to that feedback was hiring an executive to do just that -- engage the staff.
"One of the things that I did was when I restructured was to ensure there would be consistent communication and an avenue for the ATU," Ferrell said. "Our executive vice president, who’s the second-ranking position in this organization -- labor relations as a department reports to him.
"He is in the garages every day, if not every other day."
Balancing the books
SORTA officials have not been shy about reporting their financial problems over the last several years, with the transit agency looking at a projected $150 million deficit over the next 10 years.
"We are not on a sustainable funding model," Ferrell said. "I think everybody recognizes that. If we don't come up with an alternative then we're on a very slippery slope."
The majority of Metro's funding comes from the city's earnings tax. That's about $50 million each year Cincinnati tax payers front for bus service. Fare revenues make up another 20-30 percent, and then smaller grants account for the rest.
It's been the same funding model for more than four decades, and leaders agree Metro needs a new, permanent funding source.
"We’ve known since the Great Recession that the city’s income tax wasn’t going to cut it funding the system," said Mark Samaan, with the grassroots advocacy group, the Better Bus Coalition.
"They do not have the funding to have bus routes to send, to have bus routes to where people want or need to go or to serve populations outside of the city limits," he said.
Miller believes part of Metro's financial problems stem from the hiring and firing practices, and simple careless spending.
"You spend all of this money training an employee, and then you fire them?" he said.
Miller said he is also concerned that SORTA is not spending money on the right things, especially when it comes to replacing its fleet. Miller said he'd like to see more money spent on buses that run local routes, rather than on special buses used for the express routes, which run less frequently.
"What happens is an operator will bring a bus back to the garage to trade off to get one of the express buses that only go on express routes because they don’t want them on other routes. To me, that’s a waste of money," he said.
"The express buses are sitting in the garage during the daytime on regular routes, while the older buses are out on the roads."
Ferrell told WCPO he is always looking at administrative costs as a way to keep Metro in the black.
"I do the same thing that the CEO of any corporation would do. You’re always looking for ways to lower your expenses and create efficiencies. We’re constantly looking for it," he said.
Responding to claims that Metro is mismanaging its money, Ferrell told WCPO: "I would invite them to come in and let’s go through the detail because there’s always more to it than somebody splashing a headline, no offense, that says this.
"We don’t have anything to hide."
Ferrell hired Chief Financial Officer David Riposo in the summer of 2016 to analyze the agency's balance sheets. Riposo announced last week that his audit discovered roughly $8 million in unallocated funds, from projects that came in under budget or were canceled, dating back to 2001.
Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.
Hillary Lake is an investigative reporter for WCPO's I-Team.