WAITING FOR THE BUS Area transit workers will make yet another trip to the Escambia County Commission chambers Thursday, Dec. 8 as their workplace drama rolls on. Workers previously requested that the county send Veolia Transportation packing and take over management of the local transit system.
“I don’t even think they thought about it,” said Mike Lowery, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1395. “It’s not like they contacted us to talk about it.”
Transit workers and Veolia, a Paris-based company hired by Escambia County to manage the local transit system, have been locked in a stand-off over contract disputes.
“There hasn’t been any negotiations,” Lowery said. “There hasn’t been any movement.”
The union president said that Veolia has created an adversarial work environment and has not been open to wage negotiations. Lowery said he keeps busy trying to address employees’ concerns.
“I’m not fast enough to keep up with it all,” he said. “I had one today—‘They shorted me on my paycheck Friday.’”
In addition to Veolia, Escambia County commissioners will also look at two other transit management companies: First Transit, Inc. (out of the United Kingdom) and MV Transportation, Inc. (based in California).
“They’re all big players in the transit industry,” Lowery said. “We deal with all of them.”
While he wasn’t excited about any of the management possibilities, Lowery said he would prefer MV out of the three choices.
“At least it’s a U.S.-based company,” he said.
But that’s not likely to happen. County staff is poised to recommend that the commissioners stay the course with Veolia. The commission will be advised to head into another contract with the company “for the fixed annual amount of $420,641, from year one through year five.”
Commissioner Gene Valentino said that he will most likely go with county staff’s recommendation.
“I generally, unless there’s major objections, support the findings of the committee,” the commissioner said.
Valentino said he viewed upping Veolia’s contract as “a patch on the tire.”
“It’s just an interim measure, anyway, in my mind,” he said.
Valentino noted that county officials did consider taking over the management of the transit system, but felt that outside parties could better handle the task.
“We felt like there was a lot of specific expertise that the county did not have,” he said.
Beyond the immediate question of who will oversee public transit in Escambia County, Valentino thinks the area needs to invest in a more regional transportation system.
“If the word mass transit is truly used correctly and not just as an oxymoron, we need our fellow counties—Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton—on board,” he said.
To accomplish such a regional system would require some kind of gas tax, Valentino said, which would ease the tax burden currently resting on the shoulders of property owners. In other words, the transit system would need to be funded via a tax collected from all drivers instead of from money stemming from local property taxes.
“One event does not go without the other,” Valentino explained. “It’s not like raising taxes. It would be, in effect, a wash.”
COLE CIRCUS Why are the feds investigating Santa Rosa County Commissioner Bob Cole? Shady land transactions? Lifeguard Ambulance’s contract? Maybe something to do with the Blackwater prison in Milton?
Or maybe it’s the shenanigans at Bob Cole’s Import Automotive Professionals. According to law enforcement reports obtained by the IN, there’s been trouble down at the Pensacola shop.
In May 2009, Cole reported a possible fraud involving General Manager Christy Matula. He told sheriff investigators in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties that Matula, and her husband David, had made unauthorized charges on the company credit card, and may have stolen money and vehicles.
The four-month investigation ended with no charges filed after Escambia County Sheriff’s Office determined the dispute was more civil than criminal. However, the did, reveal some questionable business practices on Cole’s part.
The ECSO report suggests that Cole may have pocketed cash without reporting it as income, repaired vehicles with used parts while claiming they were new to the client and insurance companies, used business funds for personal expenses and made false claims to FEMA regarding hurricane damage.
Through a series of interviews with employees at the auto repair business, investigators paint a portrait of a fast-and-loose, under-the-table operation run by an ego-maniac.
“Since he became county commissioner, he started changing and it was a beautiful place to work before then,” former mechanic Gilmore Hargrave told investigators. “Everything started to go to his head.”
The report states that the business was in poor financial shape to the point that employees had to hold their payroll checks and the garage was cut off by local auto parts’ vendors due to outstanding balances. Employees also told investigators that Cole’s family was on the payroll, although they didn’t really work there.
Why is Bob Cole being investigated by the FBI and the IRS? Apparently, not even Bob Cole knows.
“They threw so much out there, I didn’t know what they were focused on,” Cole recently told the Northwest Florida Daily News.