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Friday October 24th 2014

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Buzz: ECAT Looks to Escambia


Mass Transit Requests County Takeover
By Jeremy Morrison

Now that the Escambia County Transit System can rely on the recently passed four-cent gas tax for future funding, what’s next for the area’s mass transit system? If the ECAT employees union gets its way, the system will become managed by Escambia County instead of a private management company.

“We’re requesting, demanding politely,” said Mike Lowery, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1395.

Earlier this month, Lowery wrote a letter to Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May and his fellow commissioners, imploring them to take over the system. The union president outlined issues with the current management company—First Transit—and asked for the county’s help going forward.

“A county-run system is the most logical answer. The county owes it to the bus riders who rely on this system. We owe it to the taxpayers to not continue this dysfunctional managing and unhealthy relationship with the workforce and unethical practices,” Lowery wrote in the five-page letter. “It’s time to no longer look in the rearview mirror, but to proceed forward. Don’t put on the brakes and reevaluate. The Commission knows what needs to be done for a thriving transit system that now is ready and funded.”

Lowery may face an uphill route in his request to the county.

“At this point, there’s so many things going on that are in turmoil,” said Commissioner Grover Robinson. “We’ve got fires that need putting out before we look at that.”

Troubles with First Transit

About a year ago, a new management company took over operation of ECAT. The union was unhappy with Veolia Transportation and lobbied the county commission to switch to another company.

A month into the new relationship, the union voiced more concerns. There was dissatisfaction with insurance plans and the retention of mid-management staff that the union viewed as adversarial.

“This is another foreign based company that uses the same tactics to wage a war on the workers that provide the service to the citizens of Escambia County,” Lowery wrote last May.

The problems with the new management company seem to have persisted. Lowery recently described present conditions as worse than those that existed under Veolia.

“Far worse. Far, far worse,” the union president said. “This management team has got to go.”

In this month’s letter to the commissioners, Lowery details several issues with First Transit. He expresses concerns about employee morale and the lack of a labor agreement—“in fact, the relationship between the management team and the union is severely in question”—as well as concerns with routes. The letter also touches on training and safety—calling those efforts “marginal at best”—and frames the relationship between management and employees as “not repairable or trustworthy.”

“The workplace morale is lower than ever,” Lowery writes. “Our union reports that our membership is demanding action to either push for replacing the management team immediately or they are considering a labor type action.”

Uphill Route

Commissioner May is not unfamiliar with the problems at ECAT. He hears about such issues from transit employees and constituents.

“I’ve heard that over and over again,” May said.

The commissioner said he hasn’t delved into the issue deep enough yet—“I don’t know the numbers”—but is open to discussing a change.

“I think the county has a responsibility to at least listen, investigate and find out what is going on,” May said. “I think there’s values on both sides of the argument, but I want to really peel back the onion and really look at it.”

May’s fellow new commissioner, District 5’s Steven Barry, is also up for a discussion.

“I’m certainly open-minded to it,” he said, noting that while the commission has tackled funding, it hasn’t recently discussed operations—“we haven’t talked conceptually about it.”

In the past, of course, there have been conversations at the county level. The ECAT union has long desired to be managed by Escambia.

“That’s been discussed for quite some time, back and forth,” said Commissioner Wilson Robertson. “I’m not real sure how I feel. I’d have to know more about it. It may be the way to go.”

Though game for a discussion, Robertson leans toward farming management duties out to the private sector. In general, he views privatization as “far more effective.”

“I really think we’re gonna go more toward privatization in the future,” Robertson said. “So, I don’t really see the point of bringing more stuff in-house.”

And to be sure, the county’s plate has been filling up fine without the added dish of ECAT management. Commissioner Robinson points out that issues such as the recent gift-card snafu at the Greater Pensacola Chamber or preparing to run the West Florida Public Library system will take a lot of attention. He refers to the possibility of taking on ECAT as a “monumental task.”

“We need ECAT to be settled for a little while,” Robinson said.