Who'd have thought exorcising the past would be so expensive.
Since a financial scandal erupted at Metra in spring 2010, officials have called in powerful forces to clean house.
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Construction-PaloozaWe should all be construction engineers. The Illinois tollway started 2013 off with a bang by approving more than $223 million in construction and engineering contracts. It's part of a $12 billion, 15-year road building project. Work this season will include an interchange connecting the Tri-State Tollway with I-57 near Harvey and widening the Jane Addams Tollway.
No, not priests or shamans. We're talking about consultants.
In May 2011, I reported that Metra had spent about $2 million on legal, security and management consultants to create a new administration in the wake of former CEO Phil Pagano's suicide. An experienced railroader, Pagano exerted so much control over the agency it went unnoticed for years that he was getting away with unauthorized salary and benefits payouts.
But spending related to historical mismanagement didn't end in 2011.
• In December, Metra board directors authorized a $172,317 contract with consultants to assess the procurement department, train employees and repair what CEO Alex Clifford called "a decade of neglect."
• On Jan. 10, the board endorsed pay raises for nonunion employees, acting on a compensation report by Public Sector Personnel Consultants, who were paid $100,000.
As a result, a total of 279 employees will see salary increases ranging from less than 1 percent to 46 percent. More than half the raises were 10 percent or higher. The total cost for salary increases is $2.6 million. With pensions and payroll taxes added in, the tally is $3.6 million.
The blame for the expense goes back to Pagano. The changes reverse a climate of cronyism that existed under the previous regime and replace imbalances with a logical system, Metra leaders explained, adding they're acting on the advice of a third party.
"The board has been struggling with how to bring closure to what I would call the pre-Clifford era," Clifford said. "I hope this is the final chapter."
Officials also stressed nonunion employees haven't received pay raises since 2009.
But the timing couldn't be worse since riders are still smarting from fare hikes of 29 to 30 percent imposed on 10-ride and monthly passes last year. Increases of 11 percent will go into effect on 10-ride passes Friday.
Not surprisingly, I've heard from readers upset about the upgrades. It's an era of austerity, they say, so why are employees at a governmental agency getting raises?
I circled back with Metra to clarify what's going on.
For starters, pay for nonunion employees was frozen in 2009 until this January when a 2 percent increase was instituted, administrators said. Union employees have been getting about 3 percent a year.
"We have been clear since the beginning that our goal was to make sure Metra is in the best position to attract and retain qualified workers by having a fair, appropriate, sustainable and competitive pay plan," Metra spokesman Mike Gillis said in an email.
Raises will be phased in at a maximum rate of 9 percent a year. That means the impact for 2013 is $1.5 million.
The $1.5 million budgeted for 2013 is "two-tenths of 1 percent of our overall $713.5 million budget. And we actually budgeted $2.9 million -- it came in much lower than our estimates," Gillis said.
Not everyone came out ahead regarding raises. There were roughly 122 people who talked to the consultants and got no raise at all. And then there's the systems programmer who will receive a big 85-cent a week raise.
Compare that with the training instructor whose pay will jump 46 percent from $52,500 to $76,650, or the auditor whose salary will spike by 42.5 percent from $47,166 to $67,231 or the engineer whose pay will rise from $60,918 to $79,315, a boost of 30 percent.
On Jan. 10, when Metra directors approved the salaries, part of the rationale was that one-third of the workforce is near retirement age and those with railroad experience are hard to replace.
"It's a huge challenge and we need to make sure as we go into the market and recruit that we have the ability to attract quality candidates," Clifford said.
OK. But more than one-quarter of the employees getting raises have jobs not specifically linked to railroading. For example: attorneys, accountants, communications officers, office managers and secretaries. Aren't these sorts of jobs easy to fill in today's market?
"We said the need to offer competitive wages was particularly true for railroad-related jobs, but that does not mean it is unimportant for other jobs," Gillis said. "We believe it is important for all jobs, and that is why all jobs were included in the analysis."
Former Kane County Chairman and Metra Director Mike McCoy was skeptical of the compensation report last summer, saying he'd never read one that recommended employees be paid less.
But even McCoy joined other board members in approving the pay raises. "I'm OK with making a one-time adjustment to get things under control," he said.
Metra also is moving to post employee salaries online and establish a committee that approves promotions and hires for employees making over $75,000.
How would you have voted? Let me know what you think by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
One more thing
Of course when it comes to raises, it's all relative. I think the kindly Metra conductor who kept the doors open as I raced to catch my train last month definitely deserves one. As do the guys who froze their tails off fixing a broken rail on the BNSF line last week.
Here's a few other transportation employees who merit a bonus:
• Metra police Officer Lorenzo Esqueda and Road Foreman Robert Conway both intervened in separate incidents last month to prevent suicide attempts on the tracks.
• And District 15 State Trooper Jason Bradley ran across the Tri-State Tollway in Elmhurst in the midst of the morning rush hour to offer CPR to a motorist suffering a heart attack last October.
Edward Cook of Batavia says he's stuck to his tollway boycott vow ever since rates nearly doubled a year ago.
Cook explained, "what finalized the decision and firmed the resolve was a remark made by one of the tollway (officials) who said something to the effect of, 'we expect a drop in usage but when they realize the convenience of the tollway, they'll be back.' The statement struck me as arrogant in that the tollway felt they could raise rates with impunity and the public would continue to use the tollway anyway, and once again they have been proved correct.
"This is one driver who has not paid up when the rates went up. I have not used the tollway since Jan. 1, 2012, and turned in my I-PASS transponder a couple of months ago. Driving the byways has been interesting and quite relaxing. My wife and I have enjoyed discovering many things we missed while hurtling down the highway from egress to exit. One of our destinations has less miles and only a few minutes longer driving time using the back roads rather than the tollway, and there are many nice shops and restaurants along the way. There has not been a time when I have regretted the decision."
It's nearly here. The Chicago Auto Show runs Feb. 9 to 18. Next week we'll preview what's in store. Check out www.chicagoautoshow.com/default.aspx.