OCTA CEO: Public employees get the job done even under fire

Posted on June 7, 2011 by Will Kempton

There has been significant media attention given in recent months to the salaries and benefits that government workers receive. These issues certainly merit public discourse, but too often, the focus shifts to an unwarranted judgment on the worth of public employees.

Having worked in government for many years, I’d like to provide my opinion on what I view as an assault on the dedicated work of thousands of public servants.

These employees protect us, teach our children and provide services that have a vital impact on our economy and quality of life.

My career as a transportation professional has spanned 38 years, and for 27 of those years, I have been very proud to call myself a government employee. Nearly two years ago, I was hired as CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority. I am honored and privileged to serve the people of Orange County and I am surrounded on a daily basis by 1,600 other OCTA employees who feel very much the same way.

Like private sector businesses, our agency has been hit hard by the worst financial crisis this nation has seen since the Great Depression. All too frequently, I have been forced to present to our board of directors very unpleasant options to ensure the agency’s effective operation and long-term sustainability. OCTA has resized and reorganized its workforce to match what our residents and voters expect. This government organization will not spend any more tax dollars than it receives.

Operating with a business mindset carries with it consequences. Unfortunately, in the last two years, OCTA coach operators, mechanics and administrative employees have joined the staggering number of Americans who are unemployed. Administrative employees are entering their third year with no raises, and we are grappling with rising health care expenses that potentially will cost employees more — the same issues faced by the private sector.

In the last year, we have worked cooperatively with our three labor unions representing our coach operators, mechanics and maintenance employees to negotiate three-year contracts that will consider compensation adjustments in the third year and only if the economy improves significantly.

Our employees, like those in the private sector, have sacrificed. They should be applauded because each of them continues to provide excellent public service. The faces of these employees are too often forgotten in the frenzy to feed the beast that is the never-ending news cycle. In the hunt for more viewers, listeners, readers and clickers, it’s easy to incite anger by ranking top-paid government employees.

I am a strong advocate of open government and have no problem sharing what our employees earn. Letting the public see exactly where all of our tax dollars are being spent is a part of that transparency. OCTA was among the first government agencies in the state to post online salary and benefit information (www.octa.net/righttoknow).

However, what is missing in stories that turn salaries into horse races is the lack of discussion regarding the dedication and specialized expertise of public employees.

Pointing out who works the most overtime, or which employees are in the $100,000 club, or who will be bringing in the biggest pension when they retire is sure to set the blogosphere afire. However, this does little to effectively further discussion of responsible government. While it is certainly appropriate to expect government to perform well, we also have to accept that we need to pay competitive wages to maintain a competent workforce.

For our part, OCTA operates and funds a bus system that served 51 million riders last year and finances and plans Orange County’s Metrolink, utilized by four million people annually. We develop and pay for freeway improvements, administer the county’s Measure M half-cent sales tax program, provide funding for local street improvements, oversee taxicab permitting, run the Freeway Service Patrol tow trucks and operate the 91 Express Lanes.

Through these services, OCTA is an economic engine for Orange County businesses. In 2010, projects totaling more than $525 million went into construction, translating into thousands of local well-paying private-sector jobs in construction, engineering and design. This is in accordance with OCTA’s policy to contract out as much engineering and professional services work as possible to private-sector firms.

And, overseeing these projects and services are OCTA employees, a collection of dedicated, honest and highly skilled individuals. We are engineers, contractors, financial planners, contract administrators, mechanics, coach operators, communications and information technology professionals.

We work every day to make Orange County better for residents, businesses and visitors and ensure it remains a thriving place for our children and grandchildren. We are a government agency that delivers on its promises on schedule and within budget. This can be seen in the completion of the Measure M program and the trust that 70 percent of voters placed in OCTA by renewing the half-cent sales tax for 30 more years. We are government that works.

When the compensation discussions occur, what needs to remembered is that public employees are your friends and your neighbors. We coach Little League teams, volunteer for the Red Cross and raise money to fight Alzheimer’s. Your tax dollars are our tax dollars, too.

I ask that you join me in taking pride in the demonstrated commitment and the hard work performed day in and day out by the men and women who are this local government agency and other public employees like us throughout the nation.

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "Hide-and-Seek behind bus mirrors and A-pillars" here.

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