CA: Muni Operators to Get Millions from Trust

Muni operators will receive a collective $8 million in payouts from a special trust fund that management hadn't disbursed since December 2009.

The move comes as the Municipal Transportation Agency faces a projected deficit of $28 million this year, $34 million next year and $46 million the year after. The scenario has prompted officials to consider several ways to make more money, including raising parking fines, extending parking meter hours to Sundays and later into the night, and charging an extra 25 cents when Muni riders pay their fares with cash.

Despite the budget shortfall, the agency's governing board decided the money was due the operators.

"We feel that this is in the best interests of the agency and of the employees," said Debra Johnson, the agency's director of administration.

The decision was made behind closed doors Tuesday and the outcome was announced later in public session.

The timing of the settlement comes as the top executives in the operators' union are stepping down and the rank and file are voting in new leaders. The Muni board might be extending the payouts as an olive branch with the hope that the operators will pick union representatives less antagonistic to management.

The settlement also comes under the watch of Muni chief Ed Reiskin, who started in his job in July. Citing a fiscal crisis, management decided in December 2010, just before contract negotiations began, to withhold the payouts that amounted to up to $3,000 extra annually for each operator at the end of the year. The trust fund was designed to help Muni operators pay for their higher dependent health-care costs, but there was no restriction on how the money was used.

The move, used by management at the time as a bargaining tactic in upcoming contract talks, outraged Muni operators.

"It was used initially to show we were very serious about the negotiations," transportation board Chairman Tom Nolan said Tuesday.

Transport Workers Local 250-A, which represents Muni operators, sued. The board's action to pay out the money ends the litigation and avoids what could have been an even higher payout had the agency lost in court.

Nolan said he supported the payout because the board feels it has "an obligation" to turn over the money to operators. However, commissioners Malcolm Heinicke and Bruce Oka opposed the payout. Voting in favor with Nolan were commissioners Jerry Lee, Leona Bridges and Joel Ramos. Commissioner Cheryl Brinkman was absent.

In November 2010, city voters abolished the trust fund and other automatic pay and benefit formulas that had been set in the City Charter and demanded that operator compensation be subject to collective bargaining.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who crafted the ballot measure, was miffed that the Muni board freed up the money.

"In a time when the MTA is trying to convince me and the public that it needs to raise more fees and impose higher taxes to subsidize their operations, they make this challenge that much more difficult by their actions," Elsbernd said.

Supervisor Scott Wiener shared Elsbernd's frustration that the operators are getting the money as other city workers are being asked to give back. "It's the riders who are going to be hurt," he said.

But Walter Scott, secretary-treasurer of the operators' union, said it was money due to the members. "This puts it to bed," he said. He said the union had been seeking even more money. Sources put the amount at $16 million; officials would not confirm that figure.

"They'll have plenty of other things to worry about than the trust fund," Scott, who is retiring, said of the new union leaders.

Management representatives couldn't say when the operators will get the money, but Nolan said he hopes it will be "as soon as possible."

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