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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Issue of the Week: Abele’s Privatization Plan

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We’re very disappointed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s decision to terminate Milwaukee Transport Services’ contract to operate the county’s fixed bus and paratransit systems and, allegedly, select the out-of-state, for-profit MV Transportation instead.

It’s a curious choice and one we may never fully understand, thanks to the Abele-backed Act 14, which boosted his power at the expense of good-government checks and balances. The Shepherd Express warned that this change to Milwaukee County governance, Act 14, would result in secret, corrupt sweetheart deals.

The Abele administration put the contract out to bid in April in a highly secretive bidding process that cut county supervisors out of the loop. Once the contract is made public, likely in September, the board-gutting Act 14 only allows the Finance and Audit Committee to vet the contract and it’s unclear whether the committee can make any changes to it before the full board gives its approval. This approach is one of the least transparent government processes, not only in the U.S., but in all of the developed world. Transparency is what developed countries try to persuade developing countries to support yet in Milwaukee County, we are using a secretive process similar to what is used in Russia or China.

Thanks to Abele’s fetish for control and secrecy, we may never know why MV Transportation’s proposal apparently beat MTS’s offer or any other potential vendor’s bid. What we do know is that MTS provided award-winning service throughout its 38-year existence, even during the tight-fisted Walker years. We also know that public protests to the contrary, Abele has not done anything to secure dedicated funding for public transit in the long run. Obviously his plan was to privatize the system instead.

In contrast to MTS, the Dallas-based for-profit MV Transportation has a rocky history. According to a March 6 NBC Bay Area report about MV’s operations in Fairfield, Calif., “Between 2008 and 2010, the company was fined 295 times by local transit officials for poor performance, including too many accidents, missed bus runs and late buses.” The former transit manager for Fairfield called the city’s experience with the politically connected MV a wake-up call to transit agencies thinking about outsourcing.

Obviously this Dallas company needs to make a profit, it is a for-profit company, so they will either hike rates, cut some bus service or cut the wages and benefits of the drivers or some combination of the above. This will hurt employers and employees. Employers will lose some employees who relied on certain bus lines. Employees will have less money to spend at Milwaukee businesses because of either lower wages or higher bus fares going to Dallas. Milwaukee already has some of the highest bus fares in the nation. The major city in our neighboring state, Minneapolis, has a bus fare of $.50. If there were ever a question of whether Abele is a Republican who calls himself a Democrat, this should clearly answer that question.

Abele has a lot of explaining to do. But county residents probably won’t get a full story from him. What is now made fully clear is that Abele pushed for Act 14 as a way to consolidate power while shutting out the public.

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