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Secret deal to end bus strike only raises more questions

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What the Devil won't tell you

Secret deal to end bus strike only raises more questions

Taxpayers, bus riders don't know what contract will cost as City Council shrugs

  • David Wilson/Flickr

Only in Tucson does the longest, most disruptive strike in modern municipal history end in a secret deal, punctuated by a big question mark. Residents don't know what tax subsidies or fare increases they'll be on the hook for in coming years.

Good news: The Sun Tran strike is over and 60,000 people are able to get around town Thursday.

Bad news: Taxpayers and bus riders have no idea what the deal will cost them — and neither do city leaders. The crippling 42-day strike ends with Professional Transit Management and the Teamsters Local 104 agreeing to terms the union approved Wednesday but neither party will disclose.

It's not a public record (yet) — Arizona's public records law doesn't apply because PTM is a private contractor.

Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega told that PTM may never have to disclose what was agreed to, and that statement pegged my bullshit meter so far into the red it may never work again.

Is Ortega saying the city's audit authority over Sun Tran doesn't cover the cost of labor? Please. Just ... seriously. So I can write "the Sun Tran strike will cost the city $1 billion" and Sun Tran can't say I'm wrong. I can also assert the Teamsters settled the strike for $2.38 and the complete library of films by Rob Schneider and that may just as well be true. Or are voters stuck picking a number between 2.38 and 1 billion and they'll tell us if it's correct? Good lord!

Sun Tran was happy enough to hand reporters all the data on driver and mechanic salaries when it suited their message during the strike. Now they don't want to. The Teamsters were pleading the case for raises — now they've got them but don't want to tell anyone how much.

Does the outcome hold taxpayers harmless? Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. Taxpayers won't know until 1) the budget sessions start after the elections or 2) someone squeals because Tucsonans are holding a branding iron to their soft underbellies.

Either way, some 60,000 Tucsonans were the losers in this strike, which is over in name only because the heavy lift left to taxpayers and rate-payers to clean and jerk was always the big question. It remains the big question.

Remember, when people are doing business with the city but won't disclose key information, all of us should ask: "Why don't you want us to know?"

Here's what we do know

When the strike started, the Teamsters were asking for a massive increase in benefits, somewhere between $10 million and $20 million in additional costs to Sun Tran, which it would have to pass that along to the city.

Management's "final" offer was closer to $2 million, basically cash the city gave the Professional Transit Management to cover additional staff costs. They put that deal on the table and walked away. Union members rejected it and went on strike.

Then labor came down to $5.7 million. Management refused to negotiate.

We know leading up to and during the strike, the Council refused to raise bus fares or the city subsidy to prevent or settle the strike.

The City Council had the authority with its budget to make more money available but refused to do so because, they argued, the budget was settled. Council members supported by unions were happy enough to slap PTM for not settling the strike, but wary of the business community, they tried to send strong message to labor to not expect additional dollars.

If it sounds confusing, it's because it is a confusing message. Even if the city was trying to loudly broadcast a hold-the-budget-line position, it completely undermined the message last week when the Council commanded PTM to settle the strike within Sun Tran's existing budget.

We know there was, for instance, savings on fuel because of exceptionally low crude oil prices. We know Sun Tran could find savings from not running a full bus system for more than a month and 12 days.

We know the deal worked out is for two years, meaning as soon as next year the Council could be left wondering how to pay for the agreement in fiscal year 2017.

We know Teamsters negotiator Andy Marshall is on the record saying the agreement won't effect the current budget.

What we don't know ...

We don't know how much it will cost future budgets. Marshall's statement only applies to the current budget. What about next year? Who knows?

The moment the City Council told Sun Tran to find any and all savings to pay the workers without digging into the general fund they were exposing future general funds to future commitments. Fuel prices could easily rise next year. Barring another labor dispute or a Magic Wand of Fiscal De-Manifestation, 42 days of riderless savings won't be on the table next year.

Even if PTM found a way to spread say $5 million in one-time savings over two years, in 2017 the labor agreement expires leaving the city $2.5 million short to meet its current contract obligation. Reaching a hypothetical $5 million deal will actually cost $7.5 million. Given that a few million bucks worth of disagreement led to a 42-day logjam, what does a logjam of a few million plus $2.5 million buy Tucson two years from now?  Is that an 80-day strike? We don't know and that is the problem.

Did the Teamsters get rolled and they don't want to tell anybody? Maybe. Maybe not.

Did PTM flip Tucson a great big bird, feeling they've lost the favor of the City Council and future contracts along with it, thereby handing taxpayers a bad deal on their way out of town? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

The Tucson City Council can come out and say, "we handled the strike with fortitude and aplomb, saving the city money," but they would have to follow that up with "we think so, but don't really know for sure."

Is the City Council OK being this much in the dark? If we only knew....

I am cupping my hands over my mouth and shouting bullhorn-style, so imagine 30-point bold type: "Whatever happens to city money is the City Council's responsibility!"

PTM just runs the buses, hires the drivers and prints up the payroll. Sun Tran is still very much the city's baby.

What we will learn ...

Of course, any deal making more demands on the city budget than what Sun Tran now makes, will be obvious eventually. It will show up as an unfunded liability on the city's balance sheets.

At least the City Council is discussing the idea that they should discuss how to pay for Sun Tran over the long haul. Granted, they admit the strike happened because the Council has until now failed to discuss long-term solutions, but we'll take what we can get.

I don't mean to be an alarmist because future costs may not be that much and could be met with a combination of higher subsidies and fares. The Council could have raised rates and subsidies during the budget sessions, preventing or shortening the strike. But where would have been the fun in that?

I have been screaming bloody murder about how the Teamsters contract is very much a budget issue for the city. My point is now proven in ways I could not have expected, because the city doesn't know what is in the deal it is expected to cover. It happened because the Council didn't want to get involved in the settling a strike it must answer for but can't answer much about because they don't know the answers either.

Does that sound confusing? Welcome to Tucson politics.

It's one thing to shoot yourself in the foot accidentally. It's another to put a bullet in front of your ankle Annie Oakley-style, over the shoulder and off the barn.

The strike is over but nothing is settled. Or is it?

Here's a funny truth about our public records law. The moment a councilmember has a piece of paper, an email, a voicemail recording or a napkin scribble that explains the deal, that information becomes a public record. Meaning anyone can ask for it. So ask them. Ask them a lot.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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