AC Transit, the East Bay's dominant bus service, has been hit hard by budget cuts while its key labor union has resisted benefit cost reductions and work rule changes that would make the system more affordable and efficient.
After contentious labor negotiations two years ago that ended up in binding arbitration, the two sides will enter new contract talks next year that could be just as difficult. Clearly, significant changes are needed if the district hopes to free up enough money to restore lost services and return AC Transit to a premier bus system.
To make that happen, the district needs directors who will protect the interests of riders and taxpayers. That's why we endorse the re-elections of Christian Peeples for the at-large seat representing voters throughout the district from Richmond to Fremont and Joe Wallace to represent Ward 1, on the northern end of the district.
Budget cuts forced the district to cut 17 percent of its drivers and bus maintenance workers over the past five years. Meanwhile, basic fares increased 20 percent.
Yet drivers and maintenance workers continue to be some of the best compensated in the nation. Base salaries are in the top 10 percent of bus systems across the nation. Those AC Transit employees also make no contributions to their substantial pensions. And they currently cover only about 10 percent of the cost of their medical insurance.
At the same time, the pension plan is badly underfunded with a shortfall of $293 million, an amount equal to nearly 2½ years of base payroll. Think of it as a huge credit card balance: The payments will put a strain on the district budget for years to come, cutting into funds that would otherwise go to service.
Thus, as the district enters upcoming labor negotiations, it needs strong board members who will press for compensation reforms and will withstand political pressure.
Peeples has been on the board for 15 years and understands the need for change. His opponent, retired bus driver Dollene Jones, states flatly that she's unwilling to ask workers to contribute toward their pensions.
She sees district issues strictly from a labor perspective and her role, if elected, as an advocate for the drivers. Her comments are more appropriate for someone running for union leadership, not a seat on the district board.
For the District 1 seat, Wallace and his opponent, attorney Yelda Bartlett, have similar positions on many of the labor issues the district faces. But Wallace is willing to consider reduced pensions for new employees while Bartlett is not. For us, that makes the choice clear.
Moreover, Wallace stood with his board colleagues during the contentious labor negotiations of 2010. His track record shows he understands the importance of labor cost savings to the future of the district.
Go to www.insidebayarea.com/endorsements to view our list of voter recommendations and our Editorial Board video candidate interviews of various races.