With less than four years to go until he qualifies for his 30-year pension, Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus driver Bill Litzan says he has a tough choice to make if a proposal to privatize the county-run transit service goes forward.
His options? Either abandon his 26-year career as a bus driver and apply for another county job at a starting salary to continue earning credit toward retirement, or leave the statewide pension system three-and-a-half years shy of retirement to stay on as a driver for a privately run bus service.
“I can’t go out and start over again like I’m 25 years old,” said Litzan, SCAT’s longest-serving active bus driver. “I would have to go to a low, starting wage at another job in the county, if I could even get that, just so I could keep my pension. But, if I stop my pension now, I’ll have to wait another 10 years before I can draw benefits.”
A move to merge SCAT with Manatee County Area Transit (MCAT), which is part of a plan to eventually privatize the two counties’ transit services, will be the topic of discussion at an Oct. 15 joint meeting between the Sarasota and Manatee County commissions. SCAT employees report the move has damaged morale and likely instigated several high-profile resignations from the transit organization this year.
Sarasota County commissioners said the merger and privatization plans could be a cost-saving measure for the county that could also improve the quality of service for SCAT riders. SCAT’s $40.3 million budget for fiscal year 2014 comprises about 4% of the county’s combined $1.1 billion spending plan.
The Oct. 15 joint meeting between Sarasota and Manatee counties will be the first step in a merger and privatization timeline that, according to SCAT Director Glama Carter, will take between 10 months and two years to accomplish.
“It’s a complicated process of contract negotiations and cost estimates,” Carter said at a Sept. 17 joint meeting between the Sarasota County Commission and the Longboat Key Town Commission. “It all depends on how quickly the interlocal agreement can be reached.”
Should privitization occur, SCAT personnel anticipate widespread defections driven by lost pensions and decrease pay.
“There’s no incentive to work for SCAT without the pension,” Litzan said. “I’m gone if privatization goes through. And they’ll lose a lot more people. People will basically be forced to leave so they can continue somewhere related to the FRS (Florida Retirement System pension plan) in order to get their pensions.”
Litzan, 52, said he makes $16.85 an hour after more than 26 years on the job (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit drivers make roughly $22 an hour), but the low salary is offset by the pension benefits available through the FRS — a state-run pension program for county and state employees, which manages SCAT pensions.
Workers are eligible for early-retirement benefits under FRS after six years of employment if they started work prior to July 1, 2011, and after eight years if they began later. Normal retirement benefits are available after age 62, or at any age after 30 years of employment. If SCAT is privatized, personnel transferred to a private transit organization will have to either give up accumulating credit toward FRS benefits or try to get another county or state job.
SCAT employees like Litzan are worried about being excluded from FRS just a few years shy of significant milestones like the 30-year mark.
“Morale is at an all-time low,” Litzan said. “We feel like the rug is being pulled out from underneath us.”
The privatization of SCAT could also lead to decreased pay, said a representative of the union representing SCAT drivers.
“They would have to lower wages and do away with FRS,” said Gordon Miranda, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1701. “The result will be lower-quality drivers. Privatization does not work for the benefit of the ridership.”
SCAT’s 2013 farebox recovery, a measure of how much of the operating budget is offset by riders’ fares, was 12.8% — leaving a significant amount of the budget for a private company to offset with cost-saving measures such as higher fares and lower wages, SCAT and union personnel said.
Despite praise for Carter’s tenure as director from both SCAT employees and county officials, several high-profile management resignations point to decreased confidence in career prospects within the organization.
Para-transit Manager Rene Pokrzywinksi resigned in September for unknown reasons, and Operations Manager Gregory Brackin resigned in August to work for Veolia Transportation in Georgia.
Pokrzywinksi walked off the job after leaving a hand-written message on a yellow Post-it note stating: “Please give my badge back to Glama, I will not be back.”
According to county emails, Carter unsuccessfully attempted to reach Pokrzywinksi by phone and eventually accepted her resignation through a letter.
“Mrs. Carter was a breath of fresh air and a reason to hope and look to have a career at SCAT,” wrote William McCarthy, a three-year SCAT employee, in an email to the County Commission. “To entertain the possibility of privatization at this time is unfair to her and unfair to all employees at SCAT who are trying to make a difference.”
The resignations left Carter shorthanded while planning a merger and other major changes, including the long-awaited Siesta Key trolley and a trolley to the Benderson rowing center and University Mall — projects with uncertain futures if privatization were to occur.
“Needless to say, my plate will be even fuller,” Carter wrote in an Aug. 26 email to Sarasota County Administrator Randall Reid in the wake of Brackin’s resignation.
County officials said the issue is still in an exploratory phase.
“I haven’t made a final decision,” Robinson said, citing the need to accurately gauge public opinion on the issue. “But it’s worth exploring at this point.”
SCAT has solicited feedback regarding a potential merger with MCAT through a survey on its website, www.scgov.net. The survey will close Oct. 11; commissioners will use the results in to decide on the proposed changes.
Contact Nolan Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org
Currently 1 Response
- Sounds like the poor union people aren't wanting to give up their FREE pensions that are taxpayer paid for!!!! I hope the privatization goes thru because what I hear every day from SCRAP (oops SCAT) I'd NEVER want to ride ANY of their busses!!! The drivers have very little knowledge of the vehicles they are driving so if something minor happens they stop and whine at the dispatcher to swap the bus. Also the paratransit drivers aren't much better!! I'm sorry but I was a truck driver AND heavy equipment operator and I needed to know everything about what I operated in case of a break down!! I also wonder why some SCAT customers are denied riding which lessens the revenue they bring in as some drivers will NOT let some passengers on the bus!!!
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