RTA drivers’ pay among highest

Officials say absenteeism and overtime contribute to their labor costs

If a bus driver making $98,000 a year seems like a lot, one needs only go back a few years when some Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority drivers were earning six figures, said Bryan Bucklew, president of the RTA board of trustees.

“I think there has been a conscious effort to reduce overtime. But a lot of these issues are collectively bargained in the way drivers get overtime and preference for overtime,” Bucklew said.

Bucklew said efforts to reduce employee absenteeism and control overtime have brought driver pay below the $100,000-plus level, but he said there is more work to do at the transit system serving Montgomery County.

“We can’t spend revenue that we don’t have. The bus driver’s salary is just one part of that mix,” Bucklew said.

RTA drivers are among the highest paid when compared to drivers at similar transit systems and Ohio’s largest transit systems, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of RTA pay and a survey of the systems.

At the same time, RTA is deeply troubled financially, with the board cutting administrative costs and dipping into reserves in recent years to balance the budget. Facing a projected $3.1 million general fund deficit, trustees last month agreed to the second fare increase since 2008 and the second service cutback since 2007. Fares went up on Saturday, Aug. 1, and the service cuts will begin Aug. 16.

Drivers, maintenance employees and other workers represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1385 were paid $23.6 million of the $29.7 million RTA spent on wages last year. The union contract covering about 474 employees expired in April.

While public employees across the state are taking furloughs, pay cuts and pay freezes, labor consultant Gregory Dash said he doubts taxpayers will see a significant reduction in transit labor costs.

“The industry has been unionizing for well over 100 years. (The ATU) is a very strongly centralized union. They’re not going to roll over and play dead,” said Dash, president of Pennsylvania-based John A. Dash and Associates.

It’s not possible ‘to right all the problems’

ATU Local 1385 President Claude Huff and the top paid drivers did not respond to requests for comment.

RTA Executive Director Mark Donaghy would not comment on RTA’s contract proposal to the union except to say it is “aggressive.”

“I care very deeply about what I do and our mission to improve this organization,” said Donaghy. “It is simply not possible to right all the problems of an organization in a short period of time or assume that its employees will give up all that they have gained through a collectively bargained agreement.”

Bucklew said everything is on the table.

“I think the drivers, along with the board and management team needs to make sure that we do things that are in the best interest of the taxpayer and also provide the best service for Montgomery County,” he said.

RTA had 629 employees and provided 11.2 million rides last year. Nearly all of the $60 million General Fund budget comes from local, state and federal taxpayers, with passenger fares bringing in just $8.9 million of operating revenue.

The Dayton Daily News analysis of RTA salaries found drivers earning as much as $98,701, a janitor who was paid $79,189 and employees whose overtime payments totaled close to half or more of their annual income.

Among the 48 employees earning $70,000 or more 11 were top managers, 35 were bus drivers, one worked the line crew and one was a janitor.

Donaghy said drivers work hard in a highly scheduled, sometimes difficult job that requires a commercial license. Many must work split shifts because of the way buses are scheduled and a small percentage are willing to work significant amounts of overtime and so earn high wages.

How some drivers earn high paychecks

For example the highest paid driver worked 893 hours for $27,997 in overtime pay, according to RTA. The janitor with the $79,189 income worked 955 overtime hours, much of it in the shop servicing vehicles, Donaghy said. The janitor’s $29,785 in overtime pay made him the top earner of overtime pay last year.

Donaghy doubts most people would want to work those kind of hours, even for time-and-a-half pay.

Forty-nine employees, mostly drivers, worked enough overtime last year to be paid at least $14,000. All but two RTA drivers worked at least some overtime.

Overtime is built into the business of public transit because buses must follow a schedule, even when someone calls in sick, said Dash. So even though the high wages “don’t make for good press” some overtime must exist if service is to be reliable, he said.

Donaghy said transit employee benefits are high compared to the private sector, and make up roughly 55 percent of the total cost of the employee. That complicates the decision to hire more employees, versus having existing ones working overtime, Donaghy said. And service cuts in 2007 and ones that take effect Aug. 16 mean RTA needs fewer drivers so he’s reluctant to add any now in response to attrition.

He said his goal remains reducing overall overtime costs, so it really isn’t a concern for him that a few employees draw high pay by choosing to work the hours that are available.

Donaghy said a major problem for RTA has been absenteeism caused by abuse of the Family Medical Leave Act, and he blamed past administrators for being too loose with the rules.

Dayton drivers better compensated than most

RTA driver pay is high compared to similar transit systems in the U.S. and the major ones in Ohio, the Dayton Daily News found. The average Greater Dayton RTA driver’s income in 2008 was $47,839 annually, placing RTA second to Cleveland and ahead of larger systems in Columbus and Cincinnati.

RTA’s highest hourly pay rate for drivers is $22.62, behind only Columbus and Cleveland in the group, which also included “peer” systems serving Akron, Toledo, northern Kentucky, Indianapolis, Louisville, Oklahoma City, Albany, N.Y. and El Paso, Texas.

RTA’s highest salary — $184,783 in taxable income paid to Donaghy last year — ranked first among the nine surveyed systems that do not contract out with private firms for executive management services. That put Donaghy’s 2008 pay higher than the $180,822 paid to the transit chief executive in Cleveland and the $153,038 paid to the top official at the Columbus system, also larger than the Greater Dayton RTA. Cincinnati contracts for management services so a comparative salary was unavailable.

Donaghy was the second highest paid public executive in Montgomery County last year, ranking below Sinclair Community College President Steven Johnson, whose taxable income was $274,419 last year, according to Sinclair spokeswoman Natasha Baker. Montgomery County Administrator Deborah Feldman ranks third at $179,729 and Dayton City Manager Rashad Young is fourth at $150,806.

“It is a lot of money. I’d be the first to admit that,” Donaghy said of his salary. “I work hard to give the board here the equivalent of twice what they pay me.”

Bucklew said a pay freeze Donaghy agreed to this year will mean he won’t get about $15,000 in bonus payments made last year. And, said Bucklew, compared to former Executive Director Minnie Fells Johnson, Donaghy is a more “cost-effective executive director that people in the community can work with.”

“Mark is committed to the Dayton area and to us,” said Bucklew. “I think Mark is compensated appropriately for our market and for RTA.”


Contact this reporter at (937) 225-7455 or lhulsey@DaytonDailyNews.com.