Three years ago, Dean Culver took a job as a SmartLink Transit driver because it seemed secure.
“I’ve been through probably four or five layoffs all in all,” he said. “Could it happen? Yes. To a county? Not likely.”
But now, facing major revenue losses, SmartLink is poised to lay off dozens of staff members — including all of its drivers — and hire outside contractors for those jobs instead.
Employees were notified of an overall change in service in a Feb. 17 e-mail from Deputy Scott County Administrator Lezlie Vermillion. The Scott County Board learned about the change at a work session earlier in the day.
“I recognize this news is shocking and upsetting to everyone involved in Transit operations,” Vermillion’s e-mail said. “Decisions such as these have [an] impact on people and we do not take that lightly.”
After already hitting some bumps in the road, including an increasing number of ride denials and difficulties making connections between cities, SmartLink is about to lose two major sources of revenue. Its Shakopee Circulator bus service will be picked up by the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, and the Metropolitan Council is pulling SmartLink’s nearly $600,000 Americans with Disabilities Act contract.
The losses are particularly crippling because SmartLink consolidates multiple types of rides. Many different passengers ride the same bus, whether they need transit service because they have a disability or because they can’t afford a car.
“We blurred that line to try to be more efficient,” Vermillion said. “So when several of the funding sources go away, just like any business, we need to take a look at the business model.”
The county is planning to release a request for proposals in April, soliciting a contractor to provide drivers and bus maintenance. The revamped SmartLink service is set to begin in October. Even with that change, Scott County leaders are anticipating a $190,000 deficit this year.
‘A very painful discussion’
After considering several ways to mitigate the revenue loss, Scott County staff decided subcontracting would be the best way to avoid cutting the amount of service available, Vermillion said. Still, she said, “It’s a very painful discussion.”
On the county’s end, the next step is to ease the transition of employees swept up in the layoff.
“We will work to try and help them land into jobs that make sense,” said Lori Huss, Scott County’s employee relations director. “I would be hopeful that any of the current transit companies would be potential options for them.”
Kurt Errickson, the AFSCME representative for Scott County, said he attended the work session and was shocked to learn about the plan to subcontract. He said he thinks there are viable alternatives, though, and plans to spend the coming weeks getting information out to passengers, county commissioners and other stakeholders.
“I look at this as a football game that started on Tuesday, and we are in the first quarter,” he said. “The employer didn’t tell us that there was a game, so they ran out and scored a touchdown while we weren’t looking.”
Drivers, passengers in limbo
Errickson said contracting out driver positions would affect riders as much as it does drivers. SmartLink drivers often know their riders’ names and schedules by heart, he said. With a subcontract, most of the current drivers, if not all, will be gone.
“The people that come in are going to be working at a lower wage, for probably crappy benefits with no pensions,” he said. “And … you kind of get what you pay for.”
Betty Leonhardt has been a SmartLink driver since 2006, and in that time has developed strong relationships with her passengers. There’s one man who makes a particular noise when he’s about to have a seizure, she said, and she knows to pull over when she hears it. Another passenger who rides every day wasn’t able to make it on a recent Thursday, but he drew a picture to let her know he was thinking of her.
Wally Wixon, who’s spent nearly a decade driving for SmartLink, said passengers rely on having the same driver every day.
“Many times, somebody will be sick or on vacation so I fill in on that route, and you just know that the client is uneasy,” he said. “They don’t know you.”
Drivers are worried about leaving their passengers, but they’re also worried about their own futures. Leonhardt supports both herself and her mother, and at this point, she’s not sure if she’ll be able to find a job that pays more than $10 an hour.
“I’ve given the county — October will be 9.5 years,” she said. “What do I have to show for myself? Absolutely nothing.”