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End of the road 

Many of the city's bus drivers prepare to lose their jobs and the heart of the union they built

John Businger sits silently for a long time before leaning over the table, his 55-year-old eyes earnest under the shadow of his ball cap.

"I'm very fortunate, because I'm military," he says. "So I have medical benefits through the military."

Businger is one of three bus drivers gathered on a cold weekday morning in the tight quarters of the pale double-wide trailer that serves as their breakroom.

All three will be out of a job within a month. As part of massive budget cuts, the city is eliminating its transit contractor, First Transit, resulting in the loss of weekend and evening bus service — and the layoffs of 73 workers, including 47 bus drivers once paid with general-fund dollars. The savings will amount to about $5.7 million in 2010.

"It's almost like a dream," Businger says grimly. "It's almost hard to believe."

The dirty morning light streams through the windows on a simple setup: old table and chairs, aging couch, TV, worn pool table, lockers. A few years ago, the bathroom and its single toilet served around 100 drivers, both male and female. Now few of the remaining employees even bother coming to this dingy little refuge on Transit Drive.

Dan Francis, who's been driving city buses for 29 years, leans back in his chair and halfheartedly brainstorms jobs that drivers might pursue. There's always school buses, he says.

"School buses only drive four hours a day," mumbles the youngest and quietest guy in the room.

Though he doesn't introduce himself, the others call him Joe. He's planted firmly on the couch, his jaw locked in a frown, his eyes stubbornly fixed on the TV screen, where the History Channel is blabbering on about the adventures of Odysseus.

He has two young children to feed.

Simmering tensions

It doesn't take long for the drowsy pessimism to clear.

"The toughest pill for me to swallow is, all of us are being laid off and we've got years and years and years of combined service," Businger says. "I'm guessing the driver with the most seniority over there has, what, 3½ years?"

"Over there" is short for "under the North contract." Businger works under "the South contract."

The South workers' history is almost as old as the Springs itself. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 19 was chartered in 1893. Horse carts gave way to street cars and, later, buses. Then in the 1970s, the private transit company that employed Local 19 warned the city that it was going belly-up. The city hired a contractor, which hired the union workers to continue bus service. What's now known as the "South contract" was born.

The North contract didn't come along until after voters approved creation of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, and new, dedicated funding for bus service, in 2004. That money went to a new contractor, which in turn hired its own drivers. The new contract came as a surprise to many longtime bus drivers — and to First Transit, which had expected to benefit from the new funding and was preparing for an expansion.

"I used to be a trainer, and we were hiring people left and right [after the RTA passed]," remembers Tony Francis, Dan's wife and a driver for 15-plus years. "All of a sudden, the rug was pulled out: Oh, they're going to have another shop. Those people are going up there; they're hiring more people. We [the South] haven't trained anybody since the PPRTA passed."

In fact, First Transit laid off about 40 drivers-in-training in 2005. Many of those drivers went to work for the North contract.

Why create two contracts? The city says it was just logistics, while South drivers say it was a check on the union. One thing's certain: North workers weren't given the same perks — such as a pension — as in the South. Eventually, the North workers managed to join Local 19, with the help of the South workers. But the discrepancies in benefits never changed.

The North group grew, while the South suffered both layoffs and attrition. Legal battles involving the city, contractors, the union and even the federal government brewed for years. The South workers' swanky breakroom facility, complete with a workout room, was taken over by administrative staff. The drivers were moved to the double-wide.

By Jan. 1, South will be gone. And no one will be able to accuse the city or anyone else of union-busting, since the North is Local 19 now, too.

South workers won't see a severance package, though some have given decades in service. They expect to receive pay for vacation hours and sick time. And there's that pension — it kicks in when a worker turns 62 and pays about $50 a month for every year of service — but only if someone fully funds it.

Enter the elephant

Dan Francis, who served for years as a union officer and is considered the pension guru by the drivers, says the city is responsible for paying the pension. But, he says, with funds tight, city officials are shrugging off the responsibility, and trying to get First Transit to foot the bill.

"Somebody has to make up for the unfunded liability," he explains, "because if they shut the door on this, they've got to eventually terminate the pension. And the law says that before it's terminated, you have to make sure it's fully funded to pay all the benefits.

"It also says that to ensure this happens, they have to buy annuities from an insurance company to make sure all the beneficiaries get paid. And that's a very expensive proposition. ... The unfunded liability as a whole is $3 million, but to terminate the plan is $4.5 million [because of the annuities]."

Since no one's paying, Bill Mahaffey, attorney for the trustees of the pension fund, has already flexed some legal muscle. Mahaffey could not be reached for comment, but Francis says it seems likely that Mahaffey will end up suing First Transit for the pension money, and that First Transit will in turn sue the city. And if the city loses, it may lose big.

"All this litigation that goes on behalf of the pension plan, is paid for by the pension plan," Francis notes. "So whoever's on the hook — which I would say is the city — is doing this stuff, and now they're going to have to pay even more."

But the pension predates both the city's funding for transit and the existence of First Transit. For that reason, and others, the city may have a good argument for not paying up. Soon-to-retire transit supervisor Sherre Ritenour notes that these aren't even the city's workers; they've always been contracted employees.

Assistant City Manager Mike Anderson says he's not sure who's responsible for paying the pension. But he's clear on one thing: It's not the city, he says.

Meanwhile, lots of drivers have their own theory regarding the pension: They think the city cut First Transit funding not because it was short on cash, but because it was afraid of getting stuck with the ballooning pension bill.

"I honestly believe that within the next six months to a year, the night service and the weekends will be back again," Businger says. "I think this whole thing is about shutting us down and getting rid of the drivers with the pensions."

Last ride

It's going on 5 p.m., Sunday, almost nightfall. The waiting area at the downtown bus station glows yellow as twilight approaches. Inside, more than a dozen people wait for the last ride of the night.

Among them is 43-year-old Art Rudd, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (resulting from a non-military incident he declined to describe). He says he's hoping to be on disability soon, which would give him enough money to buy a car that he could drive to medical appointments.

When he talks about the bus cuts, he shakes his head, and his blue eyes reveal frustration.

"What if [people] need to go to the store over the weekend, or the hospital?" he says. "With times being hard ..."

His voice trails off.

"Kay" sits with her two young children. She's in a corrections program and only gets to see her kids on the weekends. With no bus, she won't see them at all, and she'll struggle to find a job when she's released.

"If I knew who to complain to, I would," she says, shuffling the kids toward the waiting bus.

Bus drivers say they hear stories like these every day. Driver Tony Francis says as a mother herself (she and Dan have a 10-year-old), she sympathizes with the pain and hassle families experience when a part of their life is turned upside down.

She and Dan are both looking for work. Dan wants to drive; she hopes to fulfill a long-held dream and work for the National Parks Service. Tony says she belongs in the woods, but she'll miss the bus, and she worries for the people she's served all these years, many of whom will struggle to keep jobs or make doctor's appointments.

"You're really hurting the little people," she says. "When you get out there and you hear the people's stories, not everybody's a bum. There's a lot people out there that would love to do better in life, but they've been handed a bad deck and you've got to roll with the punches."

Something Tony knows a little about, herself.

stanley@csindy.com

  • "It's almost like a dream. It's almost hard to believe."

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