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Bus service hits pothole

By Staff | Jul 22, 2016

“It won’t fail.”

Jeremy Monahan, the director of Prairie Lakes Transit, assured the Faribault and Martin County Transit Board Tuesday that things would be just fine.

The atmosphere at this week’s board meeting in the Faribault County Law Enforcement Center, however, was one of mixed, weighty and occasionally contentious emotions thanks to a suddenly cloudy picture of the Transit’s future.

Since Jan. 1, the board has contracted Fairlakes Transportation, of Fairmont, for the operation of its public transit system. But Fairlakes, through a letter to the board, has requested the two-year contract be terminated as a result of its own underbidding. The agreement was supposed to last until Dec. 31, 2017. Now, the expectation is that Fairlakes’ final day of oversight will fall in September of this year.

“The (board’s) executive committee has been meeting regularly since learning of this (last month),”?Monahan said. “We can either resolicit for a new third-party contractor or bring the operations in house.”

The announcement was news to those outside the committee, and it warranted some responses of an expectedly quizzical nature.

“So they just get to walk?”?Faribault County commissioner Tom Warmka asked, wondering aloud how Fairlakes, owned and operated by Bob and Nancy Gunther, could simply refuse to adhere to a contract on its own terms. “I do contracts all the time, and I’ve got some that aren’t too rosy that I’d like to walk away from, but that can’t be done. It’s only fair that we air this out a little bit.”

That is exactly what the board, joined by county attorneys Terry Viesselman and Troy Timmerman, proceeded to do. Monahan and board chairman Bill Groskreutz put forth plans to move the operation into their own hands, cautioning that any decision outside of agreeing to Fairlakes’ request could ultimately crumble Prairie Lakes Transit altogether.

“We have a very aggressive timeline of about three months to transition, and all the dominoes would have to fall in place for it to work,”?Groskreutz said. “But if we do nothing and they (Fairlakes)?default, the buses will sit there.?Then what??What would we gain?”

Regardless of the feasibility of an in-house operation, which would entail a complete rehiring of transit staff, not to mention additional management responsibilities for Monahan, Warmka countered with concerns about the sudden falling out with Fairlakes.

“Contract law is contract law,”?he said. “If we’re going to forgive and forget, then that’s the will of the people, but what’s the penalty?”

Citing word from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which suggested a four-to-six-month timeframe for either an in-house move or third-party replacement search, Monahan proclaimed that Fairlakes’ contract never included a clause to prevent early termination.

“The transit drivers were notified Friday,”?he said. “There was no indication that they wouldn’t switch over once Fairlakes stops operating, but everyone would still have to be reinterviewed.”

Moving forward with that process, as tedious as it may be for a board suddenly stripped of a long-term strategy, drew the support of Groskreutz and other Faribault and Martin County commissioners, including Kathy Smith, Tom Mahoney, Greg Young and Tom Loveall.

But it did not silence even deeper concerns about the transit operation as a whole.

“For awhile in Faribault County, people told me about the bus service how they couldn’t even get a ride and it wasn’t worth a damn,”?Warmka said. “To be honest, I?wasn’t a big fan of this merger, either.”

The commissioner went on to acknowledge that looking in the past, whether at the counties’ union of transit systems in January or any issues regarding bus availability, should not affect the current direction of Prairie Lakes Transit. But he again laced his comments with concern over letting a third party dictate the operation’s future.

“The question is,”?Groskreutz responded, “do you want this operation to continue or not??We can play hardball with them, but they already lost.”

Loveall agreed, suggesting that taking control of the transit and doing it as soon as possible is the only realistic way for the counties to keep their service alive.

“Essentially we’d be sliding into the driver’s seat to keep the plane from crashing,”?he said. “This is the plan that keeps the wagon moving forward. It’ll be a little more expensive but only more expensive than the fictitious contract.”

Monahan reiterated precisely that. MnDOT, he said, provided roughly $1.3 million to fund Prairie Lakes Transit for the year. Taking ownership of the operation from Fairlakes, meanwhile, would cost an estimated $1.28 million, a total that is higher than Fairlakes’ contracted bid but understandably so, considering that bid is now the reason for an impending termination.

Money is not the central issue, as Groskreutz emphasized that transit operations are more “about breaking even and providing service.” That did not, however, stop the board from delving into ways it could ensure a smooth financial turnover if and when Fairlakes is out of the picture.

“There’s always a possibility of giving them some money to still be a player,” Commissioner Young chimed in. “Not that I’ve got an appetite to give them more money, but that is an option.”

Groskreutz offered another path forward one that Young and others came to support.

“Maybe we’ll be changing some routes,” Groskreutz said. “Making some on-demand routes, where we won’t send a bus unless riders call 24 hours in advance, could be a way to save some money.”

With or without the funds to run the transit itself, the board could still be hard pressed to overcome hurdles of time. Outlining the rehiring process that would follow a split with Fairlakes, Faribault County Central Services director Dawn Fellows cast doubt on the Transit’s hope for a complete makeover by the fall.

“You hired Jeremy a full 12 months before you became vital, a full operation,” she said, adding that Transit drivers were told they would stop working Sept. 1. “You are proposing to, in less than 90 days, become fully operational. There’s absolutely no way. I’ll do whatever I can to support it, but Jeremy just doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”

County attorney Troy Timmerman, to the subdued support of Monahan, had different thoughts.

“What’s slowing you down?” he asked. “You could have people hired in three weeks.”

That, of course, would be contingent on the board adopting its own job applications, drug and alcohol policies and, eventually, terminating the Fairlakes contract that would make any hirings necessary in the first place. And it would also be contingent on the Transit Board shouldering the risk of an unsuccessful transition in general.

“If we fail and dissolve this board,” Faribault County commissioner John Roper asked, “what happens if we don’t have jobs to give these people we hired?”

His question was prefaced with an exploration of employee protection waivers, which often dictate that terminated federal transportation contracts be “made good” for at least seven years. But fellow commissioner Tom Loveall saw no problem with avoiding such a snag.

“If things didn’t work, who are these people going to turn and blame?” he said, suggesting that neither Fairlakes nor the Transit Board could, at that point, be sought for help. “They’d be sitting there pointing their fingers at an empty suit.”

If all goes according to plan, the county representatives made it clear they will still have their work cut out for them. Dissecting their predicament and determining how to proceed was merely step one, which a unanimous vote ultimately fulfilled, setting into motion a mutual agreement with Fairlakes to terminate the latter’s two-year contract.

“Out of respect for Jeremy,” Warmka said as the vote got underway, “I vote yes but not without a lot of caution.”

Step two for the board, its members and a Prairie Lakes Transit service that may or may not undergo widespread changes in the coming months?

Fleshing out the intricacies of its transition, including the revision of future staff openings, proposed bus route changes and, as Martin County auditor James Forshee pointed out, the creation of new jobs to handle such a drastic ownership adjustment.

“If you’re going to go down this road,” he said, “you need to have someone handle payroll and other things, because we can’t handle all of it just out of our office.”

Down that road is exactly where the Transit is, in fact, heading.

And only time a short time will tell if that road is the right one.