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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Muni Union's Crazy Math

Posted By on Thu, Mar 4, 2010 at 8:30 AM

click to enlarge Eric Williams, center, may be a whiz at leading an effective march. But his ability to expound upon Muni's budget is questionable. - FROM MTA BUDGET
  • From MTA Budget
  • Eric Williams, center, may be a whiz at leading an effective march. But his ability to expound upon Muni's budget is questionable.
Watching the Muni drivers overpower Monday's "March Against Muni," it was hard not to be impressed by cable car driver Eric Williams (above). He easily out-debated his foes, stayed relentlessly on message -- it's all management's fault! -- and acted every bit the leader. It's easy to see why he's supposedly a rising star within the Transit Workers Union.

And yet, Williams repeatedly made claims about the Municipal Transportation Agency's budget that seemed both ludicrous and conspiratorial. Again and again he bellowed into his megaphone that it took "only $200 million" to operate Muni. And yet Muni's budget is $700 million (actually, $768.6 million). So where was the "missing" $500 million? Where's the money?

Speaking to Williams after the event, we asked what he meant by "Where's the money?" Did he mean the MTA is bloated and squandering its millions? "Those are your words," he snapped back. No, he seemed to be saying, literally, that the MTA didn't know where half a billion dollars was. That the agency had out-and-out lost $500 million like an umbrella left on the bus -- or nefariously allowed the money to trickle into the right people's pockets. 

If Williams wants to claim MTA management spends a lot of of money and plenty of it badly, I'll be the first to jump on his train. But even a relatively cursory glance through the MTA budget -- a delightful, 548-page read -- reveals that the notion it costs "only $200 million" to operate Muni  is laughable. And claims the agency has allowed half a billion dollars to roll down the rabbit hole are patently absurd.

click to enlarge Click on chart for a larger image - FROM MTA BUDGET
  • From MTA Budget
  • Click on chart for a larger image
Let's start with that $200 million figure. Based upon numbers we obtained from the MTA, it turns out that the agency's roughly 2,054 drivers earned $197.6 million in fiscal 2009. So far so good. You've got legions of drivers, nearly $200 million -- and what are we forgetting here? Oh, that's right: Everything else. What about the guys who fix the trains and buses? What about the guys who dispatch the vehicles? What about the guys who maintain the rails? What about the people who wash the buildings and vehicles? Hell, what about obtaining the actual vehicles and keeping the gas tanks full?

To claim that the amount Muni drivers earn in salary and benefits is all it takes to run Muni is, to put it mildly, a rather self-centered view. As crucial as drivers are, it takes more than drivers to run a transit system.

As the chart above indicates, the vast majority of the MTA's budget is tied up in salaries and benefits. And a good chunk of that money is going to the drivers. The MTA's utterly byzantine job classifications make it extremely difficult to simply separate wages and benefits of "labor" from those of "management" But, leafing through page after page of salary expenditures, it becomes clear that the heavy majority of the MTA's salary and benefits are going to what could be categorized as "front-line workers." 

Here are some other interesting MTA expenditures from the 2009-10 budget for anyone who would query "Where's the money?"

  • $69 million in health care costs; $40 million in retirement costs; $26 million in Social Security;
  • $19.9 million for "taxes, licensing and permits," $18.8 million on insurance, and $27.5 million on "judgments and claims." D'oh!
  • $59.4 in office overhead and, as noted on the chart above, nearly $64 million is pillaged from the MTA by other city departments such as police and ambulance services via "work orders" for doing things they should be doing anyway.
In any event, this much is clear: It takes a hell of a lot more than $200 million to "operate" Muni, and MTA knows where all the rest is going -- even if you could make a good argument much of that money isn't being spent well.

If Williams wants to assail MTA management's spending and priorities, God knows he's got a wealth of material to choose from. It's unfair to blame drivers for all of the system's woes, as seems to be en vogue these days. But if Williams wants to make wild claims about the agency's budget, he should choose numbers that aren't so specific and therefore easily debunked. 

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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