University of Kansas
Transit was a long-time responsibility of the County. In fact, the county owned and operated it. Financially, it was losing money consistently. Recently, a new county commissioner was elected. She had pledged to the voters that she would run a tight ship and that all “sacred cows” would be scrutinized in an effort to save county residents money. She replaced a commissioner who had supported transit, and now there were two commissioners, including the chair of the commission who were known as fiscal conservatives.
At budget time, the new commissioner, with the chair’s encouragement, requested detailed information about the transit operation. The staff gave her a lot of information, but she clearly was most interested in whether the transit operation was making or losing money. It was losing money. No doubt. She asked whether it was appropriate for the county to be running transit when there were private providers.
The issue began to attract a lot of attention, including letters to the editor and the threat of a packed house during the budget hearing. People were split on the issue, but the most active citizens were those who favored the status quo.
The county administrator had prepared a staff report that examined two options. The first would seek a contract with a private provider to provide transit. The second would sell the transit operation outright. The problem apparently was that too many of the transit users could not afford the true cost of their transportation. The county had no choice but to cover the financial losses. Further, slowly but surely there was a steady influx of new residents who were dependent on transit. There was no foreseeable end to the financial loses given the economic profile of the transit users.
The critics of the commissioners contended that it was unfair to show this kind of “callous disregard” for those least able to come to their own defense. “What will happen to these people?” There were heart wrenching stories. But the financial facts could not be denied, and voters were not in a sympathetic mood, according to the majority of the commission.
A further concern was with what would happen to the transit employees—which included many minority workers. Considered county employees, they had benefits most were unlikely to match if they were forced to work elsewhere. Their spokesperson, a respected member of the clergy, pointed out that “some are long-time, dedicated county employees.” “Don’t these employees deserve to be treated better?” some argued.
When the transit budget came up for review, the room was packed. Most of those attending, including a contingent of very respected clergy, were opposed to the shutting down of the transit operation or its privatization. There were placards in the back of the room blasting the commission, and everyone knew it was going to be a tough evening.