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Hatch: Don't buy the UTA spin

Published August 10, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For over the last dozen years, I have been involved in public transportation policy. For 10 of those years, I was a member of the Salt Lake County Council and fought for a better revenue stream to fund both light rail and the Frontrunner. For most of that time, I have had the pleasure of being the attorney for Local 382, Amalgamated Transit Union, the union which represents almost 1,400 UTA employees. This job has required me to study the UTA budgets in detail.

Obviously, I have read with interest the recent reports of high salaries and bonuses for executives, junkets to Europe, and a request for a sales tax increase. I have strong opinions on these subjects but I have kept my mouth shut until I read Mayor Ralph Becker's op-ed piece ("The success of Utah Transit Authority," Opinion, Aug. 3) That opinion contained so much misinformation and UTA "spin" that I must respond.

First, it is a tired UTA cliché that UTA has completed all its capital projects on time and under budget. The fact of the matter is that, when the Great Recession hit UTA's revenues very hard starting in 2009, the UTA should have done what every other government entity did: slowed down its construction scheduling to reflect its decrease in revenues. Instead, the UTA sped up construction, reasoning that, in the long run, the lower interest rates and lower construction costs during a recession would benefit the UTA.

As a result of this decision by the UTA, on-going operations were incredibly damaged. This was pointed out in the Utah Legislative Audit of January, 2012. You do not need to read an audit to prove this point. Any bus rider who saw her service cut or her routes change and any non-management employee who saw his wages stagnate and health insurance cut could describe the effects of the UTA's cut in operations.

Second, it is also a cliché to state that UTA's executives need to be compensated on a national standard. Almost every UTA executive was groomed internally at the UTA and very few of them would ever leave Utah for higher paying jobs. One top executive literally does nothing except "consult." It may be in the very best interest of the UTA and the taxpayers if he and some of the other highly paid executives accept jobs elsewhere.

What is particularly disturbing about the defense of extraordinary high salaries is that, when these same executives sit down with the employee's union to discuss wages, the executives argue that UTA wages for the workers should be some of the lowest in the country. The UTA executives, who for their wages compare themselves with New York, San Francisco and Boston, compare the employees to Boise, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City and Dallas.

The UTA executives believe that it is in the best interest of Utah that they be paid the highest salaries in the country while their 1,400 employees be paid some of the lowest.

Becker is correct when he said that high executive salaries and trips to Switzerland are not the cause of UTA's financial problems. However, they are a powerful symbol of UTA's mismanagement. Now that the Draper TRAX line and the Sugar House trolley line are almost finished, UTA management should make a herculean effort to improve UTA's operations by restoring bus services; by better integrating the buses, trains, and light rail schedules; and by appropriately compensate the 1,400 employees that make the entire system run. Let us absorb the great transit system the taxpayers financed before we start talking about building a cog rail system up Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.

Then, just maybe, the public would respond favorably to additional revenues for the UTA.

Joe Hatch is former chairman of the Salt Lake County Council.