Over the last ten years, King County Metro officials have twice asked voters to raise their sales taxes, promising expanded service in return.
And both times, voters said yes.
In 2000, Metro officials were successful in asking voters to approve a 0.2 percent rate hike and another 0.1 percent in 2006. Metro officials said these two tax increases would expand county bus service by 1.28 million hours by 2016. So far, Metro officials have only delivered about 307,000 hours, a quarter of the bus service they promised voters.
Metro officials are quick to blame the economy, but based on a review of actual tax collections, the poor economic environment is only partly the reason. Cumulative sales tax collections show Metro has collected enough revenue to provide the service it promised from at least the first tax increase.
What did Metro officials spend the new taxes on?
While taxpayers and transit users have not received what they were promised, one group has benefited from the two tax increases: unionized bus drivers.
In 2000 compensation for Metro’s bus drivers was about $79 million per year. By 2009 bus driver compensation rose to about $135 million per year, an increase of 70 percent since the two tax increases were imposed.
Nearly 10 percent of all bus drivers make more than $75,000 per year.
What is remarkable is the growth of this high-wage group since the two sales tax increases. In 2000, there were only 19 of these high-wage bus drivers and they cost taxpayers $1.6 million per year. By 2009 and after the two sales tax increases, there were 243 high-wage drivers, costing taxpayers $20.7 million per year, an increase of nearly 1,200 percent.
Now King County Metro officials are negotiating with the bus union for a new labor contract and Executive Dow Constantine has already called for county unions to suspend automatic cost-of-living allowances for next year.
The president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, Paul Bachtel, is on record saying that suspending automatic pay increases is unacceptable. And in a surprise twist, Bachtel also suggests the meteoric growth in salaries is not enough, drivers should be paid more money, and Metro should cut service to the public to pay for it.
The irony of a union bus leader calling for bus service cuts is amusing, but given how fast wages have risen in the last few years, his call for even more money displays just how out of touch the bus union is from reality. Not even the most ardent transit advocate could support the union’s position. Cutting existing bus service (especially when ridership is near all-time highs) in trade for salaries demonstrates precisely how much of an obstacle the bus union is to expanding the service promised to voters.
The bus union is not the only problem.
Metro officials and, ultimately, the King County Council and the previous two county executives have allowed bus-driver wages to soak up money that should have been used to deliver the service promised to voters.
With a substantial budget shortfall looming, county officials signaled their political will may be strengthening. In March of this year, they formed a Regional Transit Task Force to offer recommendations on bridging the deficit. The task force is comprised of local officials, business and labor leaders and transit users and may offer some political cover when the hard decisions are made.
The task force should recommend Metro regain control of its operating expenses, including driver salaries. With all the evidence showing how much and how fast salaries have risen and their negative impact on delivering bus service, the potential of not doing so brings into question the relevancy and influence of the task force.
More specifically, the task force should propose to eliminate automatic wage increases. Freezing pay or skipping an annual cost of living adjustment is a good start but it is only temporary. A longer-term and more responsible solution is to eliminate all automatic wage increases. Generally, union contracts allow wages to rise based on inflation or an artificial floor, or whichever is greater. This means regardless of economic conditions or changes in priorities, wages always go up and never stay the same or go down, which places the county in its current predicament — allowing wages for union employees to grow while cutting programs and services for everyone else.
Another responsible recommendation would place service above wages. Cutting new or existing transit service, as the bus union president suggests, to pay for higher wages for drivers is unfair to voters who were promised service in exchange for higher taxes. Such a policy might be popular with labor and secure Bachtel’s position as a union president, but taxpayers approved the tax hikes for more transit service, not increased wages for public union bus drivers.
The Regional Transit Task Force should also recommend that Metro managers assign part-time operators more hours that would otherwise be given as overtime to full-time drivers. Part-time operators cost substantially less than overtime rates for full-time operators.
The growth in wages for Metro bus drivers is financially unsustainable and harms King County’s ability to provide transit service. Officials have claimed the depressed economy has eroded new sales tax revenue and caused it to miss new service delivery. Yet, drivers’ salaries have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the same time period.
Voters who approved two tax increases were told the revenue was for expanded bus service, not higher wages for bus drivers.
Metro officials should gain control over their spending and deliver the service promised to voters, before another tax increase is considered.