I-Team: County Bus Driver Pay Investigation
MILWAUKEE - A big I-Team investigation found Milwaukee County bus drivers making six-figure salaries. Even more shocking: the broken system that lets it happen.
It doesn't matter where you live, or if you never ride the bus: you paid for it.
For those who need it most, the Milwaukee County Transit System is a lifeline. A dependable, efficient and cost-effective system that, some say is driving on the edge of a cliff.
"We go from budget to budget and from crisis to crisis," said Rob Henken, director of the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum.
It's a crisis made worse with millions fewer riders than just a few years ago, soaring costs, and not enough money coming in to fill in the gap.
"This hole is of such a magnitude that some very, very difficult decisions are going to be made," Henken said.
Yet, in the middle of all this, Milwaukee Transport Services, the company under contract to run the transit system, decided to let many of its 800 operators cash in -- big time.
First, a bit of context. There's a lot more to driving a bus than just driving the bus.
"We're responsible for lives," said Richard Riley, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 998.
In 2007 alone, MCTS operators were responsible for 42.5-million lives.
"After a while you get a feel for people," said driver Gregory Powell.
Still, there's stress. A few weeks ago, a masked man jumped on a bus full of passengers, pulled a knife, and robbed the fare box. There's also bad weather, bad traffic and bad passengers.
"I've been spat on a couple of times. It's a very trying job," Powell explained.
So it makes sense to pay drivers well. Right now, the average MCTS operator makes a little more than $21/hr and takes home around $50,000/yr. However, our investigation found a struggling system where many drivers make a whole lot more than that.
"Now that is news to me," exclaimed rider Teresa Butler when the I-Team showed her some of the numbers. "I had no idea, but I should of just went on ahead and started driving a bus."
In 2006, 113 drivers earned more than $70,000, 45 took home more than $80,000, 10 made at least $90,000, while four drivers were in the six figures. The top earner made nearly $106,000. That's $37,000 more than the Milwaukee County Executive, and only $15,000 less than the Sheriff.
"The pay that they receive and the hours they put in to receive that pay is well deserving," said Riley.
Still, the numbers for 2007 were even higher: 136 drivers earned at least $70,000, 54 made at least $80,000, 18 operators made more than $90,000, and the number of six-figure operators doubled to eight. The same driver topped the 2007 list, earning more than $117,000.
"There is an expectation and a very solid expectation that we're not going to see bus drivers making salaries of that magnitude," Henken said.
A recent study conducted by Henken's Public Policy Forum, a Milwaukee-based watchdog group, shined a great big spotlight on the bus company's money troubles.
The bottom line: the tens of millions of tax dollars it gets is no longer enough to make ends meet.
"I think that we are in such a perpetual crisis stage that it's very difficult to make sound long term decisions that instead decisions are made on a year to year necessity basis," explained Henken.
To buy a bit more time, over the last few years, the transit system cut routes, raised fares, spent nearly all the money it had in the bank, and kept many driver positions vacant.
"If you hire too many operators then you're paying additional benefits for people that may not be working a full day," said Anita Gulotta-Connelly, managing director of Milwaukee Transport Services. "On the other hand, sometimes you wind up paying overtime in order to get out the pieces of work that you have available."
But the company's top-tier drivers made all that extra money by working an unbelievable amount of overtime.
In 2006, drivers clocked an additional 96,730 pay-hours for unscheduled overtime. In 2007, operators racked up 94,818 extra pay-hours. Through March 2008, the company had to cover another 19,500. Using just the average rate of pay for each year, the overtime penalty cost the company at least $4.3 million.
Just to put that into perspective, a standard 40-foot diesel bus costs around $350,000. That means for $4.3 million, MTS could replace at least 12 busses. MTS planned to start replacing its oldest busses by now, but held off to cut costs.
The I-Team asked Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker if he had any idea about the transit system's overtime use.
"Not in terms of the overtime to that excess, no," Walker admitted.
Walker didn't know and never thought to ask, because the system met its budget and always got high marks for efficiency from the State of Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Not knowing, meant Walker and other county leaders looked mainly for ways to come up with more cash to keep the company from cutting any more routes -- until the I-Team found drivers racking up all that overtime.
"For anyone who thought throw our hands up we can't be doing any better, this data seems to suggest that we could," Walker said.
However, unlike other parts of county government, MTS can't tell Walker, or anyone, exactly how much overtime drivers work in a year, because the company only tracks how much it pays out, not the actual number of overtime hours.
Either way, Walker says the numbers need to come down.
"If we come back and say this is our expectation, and they come back and say they can't do it, at that point we say, 'maybe we need to find somebody else who can,'" warned Walker.
The one thing everybody agrees on: any long-term solution requires government leaders find a stable dedicated funding source for MCTS. Walker's wants the county to look at leveraging some of it's other assets. But those kinds of things take time, something that isn't on the system's side these days.