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Hourly rate for county's public transit provider will increase $5 if voters approve tax

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Columbia County Rider Transit Director Todd Wood, left, and Transit Coordinator John Dreeszen, right, speak at a transit advisory committee in April. CC Rider has made frequent cuts and additions to service in recent months, as the bus system lacks stable funding.

Columbia County commissioners have agreed to a $5 per hour rate increase for county's public transit contractor — but only if the transit tax up for vote in November passes.

MTR Western, which operates Columbia County Rider's buses, has demanded a rate increase just a few months after approving a new contract.

As of Sept. 4, MTR Western had not responded to the offer.

CC Rider and MTR had agreed to a rate of $58 per hour in April, after MTR had cancelled the previous contract of $40 per hour.

Last month, MTR notified CC Rider Transit Director Todd Wood and Transit Coordinator John Dreeszen that the company needed another raise due to an increase in insurance costs.

"I can't tell you it sounds reasonable; I can tell you they've got me over a barrel," Wood told county commissioners at an Aug. 28 work session.

County commissioners begrudgingly approved a rate increase retroactive to Sept. 1, but only if the transit service district and tax are approved by voters in the Nov. 5 election. That measure would institute a permanent 18 cents per $1,000 in assessed value property tax to fund public transportation.

If the tax measure fails and the county agrees to the proposed $63 rate, the county will be forced to cut 25% of service, Wood said. That would mean cutting down to two trips per day to Portland Community College's Rock Creek Campus in Hillsboro, reducing trips for the bus line between St. Helens and Scappoose, and cutting hours for the Dial-a-Ride service, which provides door-to-door transportation for qualified users with mobility issues.

"The only way we're going to get to a point that you're not over the barrel is getting the tax measure passed," Commissioner Henry Heimuller said to Wood.

Estimates from MTR early last month showed an $8 to $10 per hour increase, but Wood said the numbers MTR had used in its calculations were not accurate. In a letter written to county commissioners at Wood's request, MTR Western President Jeremy Butzlaff requested a $5.45 increase. $5.17 "was the new rate once some issues were corrected. That has since gone down even further," Wood explained in an email Wednesday.

County commissioners and CC Rider staff said they felt MTR should have been able to anticipate these costs when negotiating the contract earlier this year, but MTR said they had "zero knowledge" of the increase in advance.

Earlier this year, MTR's insurance provider announced it was pulling out of the sector, requiring MTR to find a new insurance plan that will cost $72,000 more per year, according to the Aug. 21 letter. Wood said the previous insurance rate was far below rates paid by comparable transit providers, so the increase did not seem unreasonable. New additions to CC Rider's fleet also raised insurance costs.

Tardif did not support any rate increase for MTR.

"The stunts that they have pulled this last year have shown me they're not a good business partner and they're not somebody I want to do business with," Tardif said of MTR.

As costs have risen, the idea of bringing the transit system in-house has seemed less far-fetched. But the potential difficulty of bringing the drivers' union, ATU Local 757, to the county, and the cost of public employee retirement benefits, are still prohibitive.

When the county solicited bids after MTR cancelled the last contract, the only response was from MTR. If the county declined MTR's new rate increase, MTR could cancel the contract with six months' notice, forcing the county to solicit new bids.

Heimuller expressed his concern that press about another cancelled contract would overshadow the county's efforts to gain voter approval for the proposed tax. A stable funding base would also make the county more attractive to other contractors, Heimuller said.

But Tardif said accepting the rate increase could also jeopardize the tax measure.

"We continue to say we don't have money to operate the system — and that is the reality. But if we turn around and approve another (rate) increase, then we're sending a message to the community that we're telling you we don't have the money, but we do," Tardif said.

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