Metra CEO Alex Clifford will cut back costs of a controversial consulting contract in response to criticism from U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, but he also defended the agency's actions as a fare hike looms.
As first reported in the Daily Herald, Clifford had intended to ask Metra board directors to approve a $225,000, six-month contract extension for railroad expert Avery Grimes.
However, in light of the questions, Clifford is revising his contract proposal for Grimes to $112,500 for four months.
"Metra has a structural deficit that has been growing for years but, up until now, has been addressed only with half-measures," Clifford wrote to the senators Monday.
So far the agency has trimmed fat resulting in "$4.4 million in a variety of cuts and savings in administrative and operating costs," he said.
Grimes has acted as Clifford's right-hand-man since April as the new CEO learned the ropes of the organization amid staff turnover and corruption allegations stemming from the suicide of former Executive Director Phil Pagano. Pagano killed himself in the midst of an investigation of his misuse of at least $475,000 in agency funds.
But Grimes' salary is raising eyebrows as Metra contemplates a $100 million shortfall in 2013 and looks at hiking fares by 32 percent for 10-ride passes and 30 percent for monthly passes.
In the scandal aftermath, "every expenditure needs to be carefully vetted before fare increases or service reductions occur," a Sept. 20 letter from Kirk and Durbin stated.
"We agree that Metra may need to utilize outside consultants to cut costs and improve services. However, such significant investments need to be justified."
Grimes "brings a one-of-a-kind skill set ... at a time when we have a host of top-level vacancies and a long list of administrative problems," Clifford told the senators.
Metra also has recently locked in diesel fuel prices, which are one of the reasons for its budget problems. Last month, it secured 25 percent of 2012 fuel needs at $3.13 per gallon, Clifford noted. In a one-year period, diesel has ricocheted from $2.24 a gallon up to $3.33 and then down to $3.03.