In 2012, Tiffany Li was BART's top-paid station agent. Those are the folks who sit in a booth watching the fare gates and answering patrons' questions. Base pay: $63,857. Overtime: $52,501. Other pay: $15,148. Benefits: $36,277. Total: $167,784.

James De Lisle was the best-compensated train operator. Base pay: $63,162. Overtime: $77,858. Other pay: $14,288. Benefits: $38,099. Total: $193,407.

Carl Oliver topped the list for foreworkers, the employees responsible for controlling traffic in the train storage and maintenance yards. Base pay: $83,252. Overtime: $121,452. Other pay: $23,330. Benefits: $43,423. Total: $271,458.

Here we go again.

BART officials and employees have entered negotiations. District directors will lament the train system's financial plight. Workers will complain that they have gone without raises.

History shows that bargaining will come down to the wire. Workers will threaten to strike, forcing riders into cars and turning Bay Area freeways into parking lots. Local legislators might inappropriately try to inject themselves into the process.

A last-minute deal will be put up for a union vote without public vetting. Both sides will emphasize their concessions, but sunshine will eventually show that little or nothing was done to rein in overtime costs and overly generous benefits.

Or, maybe this year will be different.


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As the bargaining begins, let's set the stage.

Fiscal health: BART faces huge capital needs to upgrade the aging system. Officials are counting on regional, state and federal tax money, but also know BART will have to kick in. They also face large unfunded liabilities for employee pension and retiree health programs.

Accounting for anticipated future fare increases and assuming no changes to current salaries, the district faces a shortfall over the next decade of $3 billion in today's dollars. Look for BART to turn to voters for a tax increase to offset some of that.

Overtime: Overtime added an average 19 percent to base pay of station agents in 2012; 33 percent for train operators; and 52 percent for foreworkers. One should not blame employees like Li, De Lisle and Oliver. Overtime is a symptom of a two-prong problem.

First, BART lacks enough workers to cover absences. The problem was particularly acute with train operators and foreworkers. Last year, BART hired more train operators; they are just now completing training. That should reduce some overtime. Finding more foreworkers presents a bigger challenge because many applicants do not pass the training program.

Second, overtime rules lead to abuses. Employees can call in sick during their workweek and then volunteer for shifts on their days off. For those shifts they receive overtime pay (time-and-a-half for the first day; double-time for the second) even though they did not work a full 37.5-hour week.

Pensions: BART workers do not contribute toward their pensions. Most employees (aside from police) who retire at age 63 or older receive starting retirement payments equal to 2.418 percent of top base pay for every year on the job. For someone with 30 years' experience, that works out to 73 percent of base pay. The amount increases for inflation up to 2 percent a year.

Health care: Most employees choose coverage under Kaiser or a similarly priced health plan. For that they pay $92 per month, no matter how many dependents they have.

Retiree health care: Workers who are at least 50 when they retire and have at least five years of service (at BART or another agency in the California Public Employees' Retirement System) are eligible for the same health care coverage at the same cost.

Wage comparison: Unlike negotiations four years ago, BART has not prepared adjusted data comparing wages with transit workers across the state and country.

The adjustments would account for BART employees' 37.5-hour workweek and the district's full subsidization of pensions.

The real issue is what BART can afford. But union negotiators will make the wage comparison, so BART officials should be prepared.

They need the data; riders and taxpayers deserve to see it.

This ride has just begun. Look for negotiations to ratchet up late summer, just as families return from vacations, kids start school and freeway traffic reaches a peak.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at twitter.com/borensteindan.