“Sometimes it makes sense as we look at our system and we look at what’s producing and what’s not producing,” Jablonski says, noting that the agency has several options when it comes to cutting service.
“Maybe sometimes we take [service] from one contractor to another contractor with a smaller bus and save money that way. Sometimes we can realign routes, but sometimes we will eliminate evening service.
Or sometimes weekend service before we cut the whole thing out.”
Jablonski says cutting the budget has been difficult, though, especially the last $6.5 million with a fare increase in January, which made that out of the question.
“We had expenses and we had a service,” Jablonski says.
“So we first went to the expense route and you know we laid off, well, we eliminated 22 management positions and had a lay off just last month. That saved about annualized I don’t know, $3.5 million or so.”
Jablonski says reworking shelter advertising contracts and service cuts made up the last $3 million they needed.
Jablonski notes that trimming the budget is different from year to year. Faced with a 7 percent swing in sales tax revenues last year (from a 5 percent increase to a 2 percent negative) caused them to have to trim more than $9 million from MTS’ 2007 budget.
“Now we did that differently,” Jablonski says.
“We first approached it, you know, kind of with a blank sheet. And we first approached it on the expense side of the house.
“What can we do internally to improve operations and save dollars?
“We came up with about 20 different things,” Jablonski says. That list included expanding advertising on buses to the contracted services as well as the in-house fleets, charging local casinos for parking their charter vehicles at MTS transit centers and making internal cuts.
One of the biggest changes was putting in a preventative maintenance program for the buses.
“It took a couple of tough years financially to invest in that, but now we’re seeing the rewards,” Jablonski admits.
“The fleet is much more reliable. Our parts cost is down. And it’s still yielding us.”
Jablonski says that the biggest change was instituting a financial discipline in the organization, which had become lax in approving budgets.
“We’ve changed that around. We’ve gone to zero-based budgeting,” Jablonski says.
“We have continued to streamline operations and eliminate staff where possible. So we’ve been kind of trimming expenses and making ourselves more efficient for the last three or four years. And the managers have really risen to the challenge in terms of looking at their operations to see how they can do it for less cost.
“I think we’re pretty close now because this has been really lean times. But it’s been very effective.”
As part of its funding struggles, MTS had to deal with the renegotiation of a labor contract with its drivers. Settled in May of this year, the negotiations had dragged on for almost two years, but that’s far from the worst it had been. Jablonski notes during a prior dispute the negotiations lasted five years, in which the San Diego drivers went from among the highest paid in the country to among the lowest.
The problem as far as Jablonski sees it is the high cost of living in San Diego. With wages where they were at, many drivers needed to commute to work, but rising gas prices began to put the pinch on that as well.
Noting that it isn’t as bad as in some agencies where drivers have been known to park RVs on the lot during the week, Jablonski says, “We do have people that live across the border [in Mexico].
“South of the border really provides a housing stock that is much more reasonably priced. So if you know people, especially if they have a Hispanic background, a Mexican background, they may have relatives there. They will live there. So we’ve got some drivers like that, but I don’t know what our farthest commute is.”
South is about the only direction you can go Jablonski says, as you can’t travel very far to the east before you’re in the desert and the cost of living doesn’t go down much to the north. So with the cost of living so high, Jablonski knew that not only did they have a problem keeping drivers, they had a problem hiring new ones.