I like buses. I like trains. I like subways. I like public transit of all kinds.
Anyone who's spent time in large cities, here or overseas, quickly learns the value of a public transit system, whether it's the efficiency of New York City's MTA, the user-friendliness of Bay Area Rapid Transit, or even the bargain value of Atlanta's MARTA.
A good public transit system is the hallmark of a well-functioning, vibrant city. But... it's expensive. That's why not everybody does it, or does it well.
In places like Savannah, without the critical mass of both size and funding to justify much effort in that area, public transit tends to be less about getting cars off the road and more about social justice.
In other words, not everyone can afford a car, but they still need to get to work. So they can serve your lunch, clean your hotel room, bus your table.
You know, the things you don't want to do because they don't pay enough — in many cases not enough to afford a vehicle or the gas to put in it.
Here, Chatham Area Transit buses rarely run at full capacity. Typically CAT buses do the job not of moving large numbers efficiently in a congested city with little parking — the case with public transit in big metro areas — but in getting those who have no other means of transport from point A to point B.
CAT's essentially humble and humanitarian mission, then, would seem compromised by the CAT board's recent vote to secure a large pay package for new CAT Executive Director Chad Reese.
How large? Call it about $240,000 a year in salary and benefits. (The governor of Georgia gets about $140,000 a year.)
I'm sure Mr. Reese is a nice man who's very good at what he does. But something about the pay doesn't pass the smell test, especially when you consider the median salary of the typical CAT rider.
We all want the best for Savannah, and we all want to attract the best professionals to town.
We all like to think Savannah deserves the best of the best. But the best of the best costs money.
How much is too much?
"Maybe it's just the case that CAT, Chatham County, the City of Savannah, and the Board of Education simply can't afford the best in the nation anymore," says Chatham County Commissioner Tony Center, who in a Commission meeting last week strenuously objected to the way CAT dealt with Mr. Reese's pay package.
"I don't fly first class, but I still get to where I'm going. I'd like to eat out every night, but I have to cut back," Center says.
"One of the most difficult things to learn is how to cut back."
Center counts himself as a friend of public transit; he just won "Best Liberal" in our annual Best of Savannah Readers Poll.
But he says he's miffed that the revelation of Reese's compensation came mere days after the County Commission was asked to extend CAT's line of credit, ostensibly to meet cash flow obligations, and after the CAT board voted to raise taxes on citizens through a .381 mill increase for 2014.
"I got the same feeling I got when the federal government bailed out the banks, and the first thing the banks did was give themselves big bonuses," Center says.
"CAT essentially asked us for a bailout, all the time knowing they were about to come to us and tell us about a big raise for the director. It makes me feel foolish, upset, and unhappy. The public wants transparency and openness."
CAT Board Chairman Pete Liakakis — himself a former Chatham County Commission Chairman — was called back before the Commission so he could be questioned about the pay package.
"I told Pete, when I was on that side of the table, a member of the public, I was irate when stuff like this happened. I told him I'm not going to change just because I'm on this side now. I wanted to express my displeasure publicly, and send the message that what we give we can take away."
As Center explains it, when the County is forced to extend a line of credit, it is quite possibly committing to a tax increase in the future to cover the extension.
He says any future CAT tax hike should come with a provision that "every tax dollar raised goes to pay off that debt," and not to fund operating expenses or large pay packages for top personnel.
"Now I'm hearing that the school board wants to raise taxes. The City is talking about raising taxes. Garden City is about to have their first-ever property tax. When does it stop?" he asks.
It stops, of course, when we've had enough, when the tipping point has been reached, when it's clear that CAT — no matter how essential its mission — is simply costing too much money for what it does, too much money for its volume of ridership.
"Then we're going to have to tell CAT, 'if you can't operate on your own we're going to find a different concept,'" Center says.
"I think most of the public says, 'we'll support public transit, but only to this extent.' So let's find out what that extent is."
I'm usually strongly against running public agencies like for-profit businesses. Shareholders know they're taking a risk with their investments, but citizens invest in themselves, for human capital, and rightly expect as risk-free an investment as possible.
But in some cases, such as this one, you have to conclude that, as Center says, it really is too easy to spend other people's money.
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