As has been mentioned on The Daily Weekly, Pierce Transit, the transit agency that serves the state's second most populous county, is in the midst of a significant budget crisis. It has been for a while, actually. On Wednesday, however, Pierce Transit got some good news, as the union that represents its drivers, mechanics, customer-service staff and some administrative staff formally agreed to a contract that helps the transit agency's financial bottom line moving forward.
While no union is overly thrilled with a contract that includes an across the board pay freeze, union officials and Pierce Transit officials seem to agree that the move was called for given Pierce Transit's current budget outlook.
"We all worked hard to come together on a fair deal," Don McKnight, ATU Local #758 President, said in a press release announcing the deal "As I said before, this is about saving jobs, those of our customers and employees."
"I am very pleased and proud our Pierce Transit employees/ATU 758 members ratified their contract," added Pierce Transit CEO Lynne Griffith in the same release. "We knew employees would recognize the importance of holding down costs so we can keep buses rolling."
As the root of Pierce Transit's budget woes are sales-tax returns (and projections) that continue to fall. Seventy percent of Pierce Transit's budget comes from its sales tax authority, which is the only avenue afforded to the agency to raise money. Despite this fact, voters rejected a three-tenths of one percent sales-tax hike in February 2011 that would have helped the agency maintain services and its service area. In response, Pierce Transit has been forced to make substantial cuts - cuts that have hit many riders hard. A number of rural locations that were formerly within Pierce Transit's service area have subsequently left the district, resulting in fewer riders and even smaller sales tax collections. In many ways, it's been a downward spiral.
Prop 1, which will appear on Pierce County ballots this November, seeks the same three-tenths of one percent sales-tax hike within Pierce Transit's boundaries as the one that was previous rejected.
As our Comment of the Day this morning highlighted, many Pierce County residents have questioned Pierce Transit's budgeting and accountability - claiming, among other things, that too much money is wasted on administrative efforts and that drivers make too much. After the 2011 sales-tax measure bit the dust, and in response to concerns from citizens like the ones expressed above, Pierce Transit has actively attempted to tout the internal cuts and savings it has identified and enacted - including a 31 percent reduction in management, a 43 percent reduction in bus and paratransit services, and a pay freeze for non-union employees.
Wednesday's contract ratification is only the latest effort along these lines, and one that will no doubt be pointed out to voters in the lead up to November's vote on Prop 1.
Given the agency's efforts to prove itself to voters, and the (ironic) fact that the reduced Pierce Transit service area is more dense and less rural thanks to the outlying areas of Pierce County that have dropped out - areas that balked at a sales-tax hike the first time around - Pierce Transit officials are publically confident that this year's Prop 1 will fare better.
The question being: Has the agency done enough to ease voters' concerns and prove itself worthy as the beneficiary of a sales tax hike.
"I don't want to be overly optimistic, but I feel like people can see we've checked of some boxes," says Gig Harbor City Council and Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners member Derek Young of the efforts the agency has taken to reduce costs and improve finances.
"I think we've done everything humanly possible to make the system more efficient and now we're just looking to the residents who are part of the system, and hoping they'll support this. And I think they will," says Tacoma Mayor and Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners Chair Marilyn Strickland.
And, if nothing else, both leaders agree that the substantial cuts to Pierce Transit services that have already occurred -- a one-third cut to services, and a service area reduction of 30 percent - will give voters a better idea of what's at stake this time around.
"[Voters can] really see firsthand what kind of impact it has," says Strickland. "I think it'll help some of the people who are on the fence about it."