"What I've heard is they're really not going to hold on to drivers for two years," said Monica Stevenson, a dispatcher who went with a dozen other transit workers to see the commission vote. "A lot of people are worried they're going to lose their jobs."
Though they will cease to be city employees, about 70 bus drivers, mechanics and other staffers will be retained at existing wages when Mobility Transit LLC takes over management of the bus service, according to details of the Knoxville, Tenn., company's proposal that have been released.
Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles' motion to award the bid to Mobility Transit saw much discussion by Commissioners Bill Lockett, Alvin Mason and Corey Johnson, who voted against it. Commissioner Johnny Hatney, who has spoken out against the proposal, was absent Tuesday.
Johnson reiterated his concern that options for improving the system from within have not been exhausted, and gave Athens, Ga., as one bus system that did not thrive under private management.
"If we go out and just immediately privatize sections of our government, then we're taking it out of the hands of the people," he said to cheers, which Mayor Deke Copenhaver asked the audience to hold down.
Mason questioned the savings the city actually would see. Mobility Transit has said it will trim $400,000 from the $5 million annual cost to the city.
"If we're still paying out $4.6 million in the hole, then it's still not clear what it is ... we're actually going to get," Mason said.
Said Bowles of the city's projected 2011 deficit of $8 million to $10 million: "Those numbers don't lie. We need to start seeing some solutions besides 'no, no, no.' "
Lockett said the blame for the bus system's predicament shouldn't fall on longtime Director Heyward Johnson.
A riders' group has raised numerous complaints about the service's timeliness and drivers' manners, and the system brought in just 13.4 percent of its budget from fares during the first quarter, according to the city finance department.
"We give huge pay increases for those at the top," Lockett said. "At the same time we want to punish those at the bottom. Those employees did not get us in the predicament that we're in now. Let's not blame Heyward Johnson for the problems that transportation is having, because Heyward Johnson has a supervisor, and he is our administrator."
Commissioner Jerry Brigham said numerous transit solutions had been offered over the years but all were voted down.
"I don't see where we have any alternative," Brigham said.
Mobility Transit CEO Kevin Adams, who was on hand for the bid award, said the company intends to provide employees with annual salary increases and will cut costs by improving scheduling and other efficiencies, not by cutting staffers or service. Riders will benefit from clean, timely buses furnished with on-board cameras and GPS, he said.
Bowles' motion was to accept the bid but to have City Administrator Fred Russell, who was out Tuesday, finalize details of a contract. Adams has said Mobility Transit can make the transition in 45 days.