Trustees who oversee Cincinnati's Metro bus system voted today to reject a state fact-finder's recommendations for a new labor contract.
The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) said the fact-finder's recommendations were too expensive and vague. The agency's contract with its 676 bus drivers, maintenance and support employees expired Monday.
Workers will continue to operate under terms of the previous contract while the dispute is ongoing. SORTA officials say they hope to resume negotiations.
A fact-finder with the State Employment Relations Board (SERB) made several recommendations related to a new three-year labor contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 627.
The recommendations included wage increases of 2 percent annually, totaling nearly $5 million during the three-year contract's duration. Also, the fact-finder didn't address whether the health insurance plan's design and whether money should be deposited into employee health savings accounts.
As a result, SORTA trustees said there was too much leeway for interpretation. For example, if the highest-cost interpretation of the health insurance provision was used, the agency's cost would exceed $2.6 million in 2011 and increase to $6.3 million in 2013.
To fully fund the SERB fact-finder's recommendations, Metro would have to make emergency budget cuts including the elimination of all Sunday bus service and a 38 percent reduction in Saturday bus service, beginning in June. This would've meant 44 bus drivers and 13 mechanics would lose their jobs, along with several administrative positions.
The service reduction would've resulted in providing 1 million fewer rides to customers during the last seven months of the year, a price that was too high, trustees said.
“Our objective is to preserve service for our customers and jobs for our employees” said Sean Rugless, SORTA's board chairman, in a prepared statement. “The fact finder’s recommendation would have jeopardized SORTA’s financial stability and put both service and jobs at risk.”
In December, Cincinnati City Council reduced funding to SORTA, creating an estimated $1 million budget deficit for this year. Combined with the fact-finder’s recommendations, SORTA would face a growing deficit in its operating and capital budgets in 2012, culminating in a $47 million deficit by 2013.
Cincinnati voters approved a measure in 1972 that allocates three-tenths of 1 percent of earnings tax revenues for transit purposes, but City Council plans on taking some of that revenue this year to help pay utility bills for street lights.
SORTA is an independent agency, but any fare increase requires City Council's approval because about half of Metro's $84 million annual budget comes from a portion of the city's earnings tax. Also, Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials each appoint members to SORTA's board of trustees.