May 15, 2013 10:28:23 AM
Sarah Fowler - firstname.lastname@example.org
The president of a bus company interested in acquiring the bid for the Columbus Municipal School District bus service is speaking out after intense questioning by the school board during its Monday meeting.
Although Ecco Ride turned in a low bid of $7,572,131 million, the board tabled the motion to accept or reject the bid based on concerns about how drivers' pay and benefits would be affected by a switch. Waters Truck and Tractor, which currently holds the contract, had made a bid of $8,859,331 million.
Tom McCaughey, president of Ecco Ride, said Tuesday that his company has no plans to cut drivers' pay even though its bid listed drivers' pay at $19 per hour, roughly $2-per-hour less than Waters currently pays the drivers.
"We're not lowering pay at all," McCaughey said. "Our goal would be to retain any and all qualified employees, and we don't do that by coming in and slashing pay. We're not going to bring drivers in from out of state. We want the local people, we need the local people. They know the routes. They know the children."
During Monday night's school board meeting, board member Jason Spears expressed concern that Ecco Ride would not only cut employees' pay and benefits but questioned the logic of hiring an outside company with no ties to Mississippi. The Columbus Municipal School District would be the only district in the state that Ecco Ride services.
If awarded the contract, Ecco Ride plans to partner with local charter bus company ACR, based in Mayhew, to handle the day-to-day operations.
Ecco Ride's director of business development Mark Szyperski stressed the importance of having a local company handling logistics.
"We have a local company there," he said. "Randy Futrill (of ACR Coach) is our local person. He lives in the community. He's not looking to climb a corporate ladder somewhere out of state. We're no different than the company that is there."
Spears also questioned Ecco Ride's willingness to offer comparable health benefits and life insurance policies to current drivers. McCaughey said he was surprised the question of insurance came up during Monday's meeting since that information was not requested during the bid process.
"That took me by surprise. That was never part of the (request for proposal)," he said.
He added though that before Monday night's meeting Ecco Ride had been working closely with local insurance agent Jack Gordman on both health insurance and life insurance policies.
"We talked about a number of new insurance plans," he said.
McCaughey said he hoped to be able to provide options similar to those the drivers currently have with Waters. "We wanted to be as seamless to them as possible," he said. "We don't want to upset the system. Our success hinges on our employees. We need those people."
In addition to pay and insurance, Spears questioned the tax revenue that would come from a company based out of state.
McCaughey quickly dismissed any notion that the company's taxes earned in Lowndes County would not be returned to the community.
"It would be a stand-alone contract," he said. "We would be taxed no differently than the incumbent. Everything we do, everything in the community, would be returned back to the community."
While Waters is lower in some aspects of the bid, they do not charge for labor costs whereas Ecco Ride would charge for that. McCaughey was concerned that Spears seemed to dismiss the $1.2 million savings the district would achieve by awarding the contract to Ecco Ride.
"The facts are that we are experienced with over 75 years in the business, have multiple contracts throughout the United States, and have experienced, local connections.The next best thing is look at the cost savings," McGaughey said. "That $1.2 million for a school board is not some change. It is significant savings that they can put toward other benefit programs. We're hoping that business minds prevail here and do what's best for the school system."
Mike Waters with Waters Truck and Tractor and Waters Transportation Services expressed his concerns on the dramatic difference in cost between his company and Ecco Ride.
"I don't know what or how they built their bid," Waters said. "What I do know is that when we did this contract in 2009, Dr. (Del) Phillips was the superintendent, and I know that (competing companies) First Student and Durham and Waters Transportation Services were the bidders then and that our numbers were in line. We've gone through four years, and in those four years we've seen increases in a lot of areas, particularly the insurance arenas as well as medical insurance and liability insurance as well as the general costs that everybody has experienced over the last four years."
Waters said that when Waters Transportation won the contract, they bid at cost as an incentive to CMSD to give the company an opportunity to gain experience since Waters had not been involved in the contracting business before 2009. Through the last four years, Waters said his company has had to hire additional personnel, not to drive the buses but to monitor the equipment on the buses.
"We decided somebody was going to have one heck of a deal to help us start that business and Columbus Municipal School District was that one," Waters said. "So we were operating that system per our agreement at numbers that didn't even cover all of the personnel that we used. When we went to rebidding, from what we understand, the numbers from Ecco Ride provided are back at that 2009 level or maybe below. The numbers are numbers (from) back then. I know I've incurred insurance and I know we've had to add people and when we did our bid, we obviously staffed it according to what we see going on right now and what it requires. Therein lies the difference in their bid being different from ours. That's a pretty big number.
"That raises questions in my mind on how they're going to do it, how they're going to staff it. Are they cutting salaries? Are they cutting benefits? I don't know the answer. Those are the questions I understand Jason Spears asked and those are very appropriate. In the contract , the biggest portion of it is driver pay and driver benefits. By far the biggest area of cost is around personnel. If they're going to have numbers that are that much less, I don't understand how they're going to do that without dramatic reductions in those areas. That's the root question."
Waters added that all bus drivers are eligible for the same benefits, including health insurance, life insurance and 401(k), as employees throughout the company.
As a local company, Waters added that his company is involved in the community and has gained familiarity not only with the local schools but state government.
"The biggest thing is we're a Mississippi company," Waters said. "We've been in this bus business for 25 years. We've actually even worked hard for some legislative action and got laws passed that saved a lot of money for the school districts to be able to contract. We have been very much involved in this business. We have a long history with the state board of education and the transportation people. They've known us and worked with us for many, many years."
Waters also noted that since the buses are stored at the same facility as Waters Truck and Tractor, bus maintenance cost is kept at a minimum.
"We've got lots of employees, lots of qualified technicians. We're located right in the center of the school district, more or less, so we don't have a lot of miles being put on buses to run them somewhere to get maintenance, so from a logistics stand point, we're central."
Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell said Tuesday that a special meeting will likely be called before the June board meeting to discuss transportation.
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @FowlerSarah