Summit County balks at Summit Stage privatization
After several months of review of the Summit Stage transportation system, including proposals to privatize the free bus system, the Summit County Commission announced Thursday it would maintain local operational leadership.
“We believe that we owed it to the public to take a good look at our operation in light of rising expenses and calls for increasing service, so we wanted to see if the private sector could do it more efficiently,” said Commissioner Dan Gibbs in a Summit County news release. “Toward that end, we asked staff to take a long, hard look at this to make sure we were doing the right thing with public tax dollars, and the conclusion from our staff is there is no financial benefit to continue down this road.”
Since the 2008 economic downturn, operational costs of the Summit Stage transportation system have been exceeding revenues despite the implementation of several cost-saving measures, including seasonal service reductions. In an effort to wrangle in costs, the commission decided in July to accept bids from the private sector to explore potential opportunities to maintain service while reducing costs.
It was the first time county officials considered turning over management of the Summit Stage transportation system since its inception in 1990.
Under the proposed privatization contract, the county would have maintained responsibility for the high-level decisions regarding the transit system, including the frequency of buses and the structure of routes, while the private operator would have taken over day-to-day management responsibilities, such as employee training and schedules.
The proposal was immediately contested by Stage drivers and some local residents, who put together a petition against it that garnered more than 1,000 signatures just days after the commission announced it was considering a private partnership.
Although the county did not divulge how many bids it received from private companies, Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said the idea was floated in part because of the good relationship between the county and First Vehicle Services, Summit Stage’s fleet maintenance provider based in Ohio.
The county also considered privatizing its transit fleet after hiring in June Jim Andrew as director of the Summit Stage transportation system. Andrew came to Summit County with a long history of working with private contractors, but after reviewing the bids he determined none met the goals of the county, according to the release.
“There are many situations where it makes good business sense to contract out the service to a private operator, but this is not one of them,” Andrew said in the release. “We have new leadership and a core team of dedicated drivers here at the Stage, and I’m excited to begin working with our staff who will have new energy and new motivation to provide great service.”
Commission chairman Thomas Davidson said even though the county was not able to partner with a private company this time around, the commission would continue to explore ways to trim the Summit Stage’s costs, and did not rule out privatization as an option for other governmental operations.
“Our goal with every county department is to operate with sound financial practices, and this process, painful as it may be to the employees, can sometimes be part of that task,” Davidson said in the release. “We want to thank those in the Summit Stage who remained positive and professional during this very trying time because our economy and our community rely upon them.”
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