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Transit contractor MTR Western requests additional pay raise; CC Rider lowers rate

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Columbia County Rider buses sit empty in the St. Helens transit center.Columbia County has refused a raise for MTR Western, the contractor that staffs Columbia County Rider.

MTR requested a rate increase last summer, just months after approving a new contract and rate.

The county told MTR it would consider a raise if the transit ballot measure passed. The November ballot measure ultimately failed, but MTR didn't contact the county for months regarding the rate.

Earlier this month, MTR President Jeremy Butzlaff wrote to the county to request a substantial raise.

The current rate is $57.96 per service hour. MTR requested a new rate of $71.85 per hour if staffing stays the same, or $64.11 if the county hires the mechanic, who is now paid for by MTR, directly.

That represents a raise of up to 24%.

County Commissioners Alex Tardif and Henry Heimuller voted to bring the maintenance worker in house. (Commissioner Margaret Magruder was absent for the vote.)

The existing contract with MTR states that the rate lowers from $57.96 per hour to $53.48 per hour if the mechanic is brought in house. The county is ignoring the current rate increase and changing to the $53.48 rate, upping the likelihood MTR will pull out.

"At this point I don't even care if we lose the contract, I just want them out of our shop," Tardif said of MTR.

MTR has said that their insurance costs shot up, accounting for $6 of the requested rate increase. The remaining $5 "is the questionable portion of this entire puzzle that we have," Transit Director Todd Wood said.

The county has repeatedly found inaccuracies in financial information provided by MTR. Heimuller expressed concerns with MTR's ability to run the business, noting that Wood was forced to pay an outside vendor to get a bus released from the auto shop because MTR couldn't afford to do it.

MTR said the increase in per-hour rate was due in part to recent cuts to bus service, which mean MTR must spread overhead cost across fewer total service hours. The county would use 15,456 hours.

MTR can send a letter to terminate services with six months' notice, which they have done previously. The risk for the county is that no other contractors expressed interest in running CC Rider the last time the count requested proposals.

CC Rider has had a tumultuous relationship with MTR Western for years. After drivers for CC Rider unionized, MTR terminated its contract with the public transit agency. The county solicited proposals, but MTR was the only contractor to respond.

Heimuller noted that the lack of contractor applicants last time may have been due to the fraught unionization efforts at the time. Now that things have calmed down somewhat, more contractors may be interested.

The county has considered bringing CC Rider drivers in house, eliminating the need for a contractor, but the cost of employee benefits like PERS has made that unlikely.

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