Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Pork Authority Takes Us For a Ride

Long ago, advertising space above the seating in Port Authority of Allegheny County vehicles -- trolleys and buses -- was always filled up. Banks, businesses, public service announcements, and other paid notices decorated -- some might say cluttered -- both sides of the bus, right at eye level when you were standing.

Today, you would be hard pressed to find an actual advertisement on the buses. (The light rail transit trains that have replaced the old trolleys don't even have that advertising space.) What you do find are PSAs that take up, at most, 20% of the space, and most of those are self-serving PSAs advertising the Port Authority's own services. The gradual disappearance of mini-billboards from buses and trolleys indicates a loss of advertising income for the organization. The lost revenue has to be gotten from elsewhere to help keep the Port Authority solvent and prevent another hike in fares.

And it looks like they have been able to do just that:

The Port Authority plans to adopt a $319.8 million budget on Friday that would not raise fares, cut service or trigger layoffs.
Well, that's good news for both riders and employees. But what is the source of the money that is keeping everything stable?
The spending plan for the 2006 budget year starting July 1 is balanced with $45 million in state highway money and at least $19 million in labor concessions.
State highway money? That should make people living up in Emporium feel good. The fine folks of that northern Pennsylvania city can rest easy knowing that their taxes are allowing people down here in Allegheny County to keep riding the bus for the same amount of money that they have been for the last few months. The citizens of Minot, North Dakota should be happy about it, too. That's because Pennsylvania's "state highway money" -- or at least a significant chunk of it -- comes from federal taxpayer monies. The Port Authority would be a much more efficient organization if it were run like a business. They might as well start calling themselves the Pork Authority.

The "labor concessions" sounds kind of dubious. Labor never makes concessions. After all, as the article then goes on to tell us,
Neither is certain.
Please elaborate.
The effort to get the $64 million will play out over the next few months and either will ensure the authority's stability for another year or create more trouble for the embattled agency. For now, those who use the bus, light-rail and ACCESS services are safe.
So basically, the title and first two paragraphs of the article are misleading. Way to go.

There is no mention of the source of the "state highway funds". Just some tidbits on who decides on how the money is handled:
The authority must receive the blessing of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission to receive $45 million of the $412 million in state highway money reserved in March by Gov. Ed Rendell to help transit agencies statewide. The Downtown-based commission determines how transportation dollars are spent in the 10-county region.
So the money has been budgeted by the Pork Authority, but it's not actually there yet. Okay. Got it. Now how about those "labor concessions"?

The authority also must negotiate labor contracts with 2,600 drivers, maintenance employees and supervisors represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85. Contracts expire June 30, and the authority wants to cut $19 million from its projected health care and pension costs to balance the 2006 budget.

"This budget assumes no wage increase or salary increase across the board," said authority Executive Director Paul Skoutelas. "It also assumes savings in the area of health care and pensions."

As of Tuesday, negotiations had not gone well between the Port Authority and the union. Negotiators continue to meet, but haven't agreed on health care costs, Skoutelas said.

Of course negotiations have "not gone well"! Did they think that the union was going to be happy about this? Organized labor is not going to just lay down and accept a $19 million cut. Labor never accepts a cut. Labor never accepts the status quo. The Pork Authority is trying to provide better service to its customers. Labor is never concerned about the end user; it constantly strives to better the lives of the workers at the expense of the end user.

So what happens if the union does not make this concession?

If an agreement is not reached by June 30, state law requires a 30-day cooling off period. Also, the state Labor Relations Board assigns a neutral party to prepare a fact-finding report within 45 days.

After that, both sides would have 15 days to accept or reject the report.

At that point, which at the earliest would be mid-August, the union could strike. There is no indication at this time that workers intend to walk off the job.

So instead of having the perfect budget that will keep everyone happy, the Pork Authority doesn't know if it is going to get all of the money that it is planning to spend, and might have to deal with a massive transportation strike in a couple of months. Good job.

If the 2006 budget planning process is such a problem, what kind of budget has Pork Authority been running on for the past year?
The Port Authority board also plans to adopt its 2005 budget on Friday. The board chose not to adopt a 2005 budget last year because its financial situation was uncertain. It must, under state law, adopt a budget sometime during the budget year.

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