There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Stimulating RT while fanning the flames of budget wars to come

Sacramento Regional Transit received some welcome news from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments today. SACOG has set aside $22.24 million in federal stimulus money for RT's use. But the largesse may just add fuel to a growing dispute between RT and the Paratransit board, not to mention undermining efforts to force cost-cutting concessions from RT employees.

SACOG announced the distribution of $76 million for transportation projects in Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties. The SACOG press release said this is in addition to $32 million authorized in February for road rehabilitation. The amounts are based on the region’s estimate of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Obama in February.

Specifically, RT is scheduled to receive $946,296 for preventative maintenance and another $13,053,704 for preventative maintenance or, in other words, exactly $14 million for preventative maintenance. In addition, RT will receive an additional $8.24 million for "UTDC light rail train retrofits."

RT has been hammered by the loss of state funding over the last two years. Despite raising fares this year, RT is looking at a $14 million budget deficit over the next two years.

On Feb. 23, Sacramento Regional Transit staff announced at a board meeting that the district's plans to balance this year's budget and next year's rely on getting at least $14 million in federal stimulus funds, with at least $7 million arriving this year and a like amount next.

RT's budget balancing relies on the stimulus funds displacing current expenditures, thus allowing the carryover into the next fiscal year of $7 million. That $7 million carryover plus the second year's federal stimulus allotment will paper over the deficit in the district's 2010 budget caused by state cutbacks in funding.

Meanwhile, Steve Robinson-Burmester, Paratransit's chief financial officer, has been making noises about getting a cut of that federal money to shore up Paratransit's operation. He wants ADA funding increased 8 percent in the 2010 fiscal year.

According to a March 9 memo from Dee Brookshire, RT's chief financial officer, to Laura Forester Ham, the director of accessible services, Burmester has been told that there will be no increase in ADA funding in the 2010 fiscal year over the 2009 level. Brookshire characterized Burmester's assertion that an increase in ADA funding is due as "false, misleading and contradictory to the information he has been provided directly and in writing . . ."

Burmester had suggested RT was in line to receive $28 million in stimulus money. In the March 9 memo, Brookshire responded:

"RT is working with SACOG on a methodology that we believe will yield a total of $14 million in preventive maintenance funding in FY 2009 and FY 2010, not $28 million. If successful, this effort will go toward bridging RT's funding shortfall of $4-5 million in FY 2009 and the additional funding shortfall of $13 million in FY 2010."

So did RT get an extra $8.24 million in federal stimulus funds beyond what they require?

Alane Masui, the assistant general manager of marketing and communications for Sacramento Regional Transit, says, "No, SACOG staff recommended $8,240,000 for UTDC retrofits at the SACOG board meeting in March."

According to RT documents, the district acquired 21 used rail UTDC cars from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). RT envisions using the UTDC cars as a cost effective solution for RT’s light rail fleet expansion requirements, allowing RT to complete the midlife overhauls for the 36 Siemens light rail vehicles and also cover the South Sacramento Phase 2 light rail extension.

According to SACOG documents, RT requested $1.125 million for retrofitting the 21 UTDC light rail vehicles to add automatic audio and text train announcements and CCTV surveillance systems. Another $6.3 million would pay for UTDC fleet midlife refurbishment.

Based on the premise that RT would only receive $14 million in federal stimulus plans, Brookshire said RT would require that everyone tighten their belts.

"[I]nternal cost cutting measures include freezing wages, increasing benefit costs to employees, and furloughing staff for at least 12 days over the next 21 months. In addition, all contracts for service such as those with Paratransit Inc. and Sacramento County will be frozen, with no increases, through FY 2011."

On March 9, the district board implemented changes in the wages and benefits for management and confidential employees. At RT's March 23 meeting, the board will amend the contracts of RT's top two employees -- General Manager Mike Wiley and Chief Legal Counsel Bruce Behrens. They will be required to take 12 furlough days between March 16 and Dec. 31, 2010. They will receive no "upward salary adjustments during the same period."

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