‘We’re all in this together’: 5 questions for Cynthia Chilton, TriMet’s volunteer watchdog of worker benefits

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citizens advisory committee on the budgetA Northeast Portland consultant named Cynthia Chilton is the leading citizen gadfly of TriMet’s labor union.

More than nearly anyone else outside TriMet management, the former Mercer benefits consultant has been responsible for drawing public attention to the transit agency’s unusually generous health and retirement benefits.

Appointed in 2009 to chair TriMet’s Citizen Advisory Committee on the Budget, Chilton immediately began sounding the alarm about the date with doomsday set up by TriMet’s benefits package. High-profile media coverage followed and hasn’t stopped since.

Chilton is an unusual skeptic of public transit policy. She’s half of a low-car household in inner Northeast Portland. She and her husband, in their late 50s and early 60s, share a vehicle they use about once a week. Chilton said her husband does most of their shopping with a bike trailer, while she gets around mostly by bike, on foot and "occasionally" on the 8, 9, 77 and the Red and Blue MAX lines.

But here’s the thing about Chilton: Almost nobody in the city knows TriMet’s budget better, and almost everyone who does has a livelihood on the line.

Chilton doesn’t. She’s an independent operator. That’s exactly why I wanted to interview her about TriMet’s future, its fight with its union and its obligations to riders, workers and the public. (Qs & As edited for brevity.)

I want to talk about something you said last week: That even if the economy improves in 2012, health costs will still grow much faster than payroll taxes, so next year’s TriMet cuts are only going to be worse.

That’s been picked up by a few people. TriMet said, ‘We’re okay with the 17 million [projected cuts for fall 2012].’ I’m like, how are you okay? Even if you settle with the union today, you’re not going to achieve what the endgame has to be, which is compensation, benefits and work rules in line with the rest of the industry. You’re continuing to accumulate additional future liabilities, because you’re still hiring people with promises for their retirement.

Have you heard a well thought-out response from anybody at TriMet?

No, not yet. I haven’t specifically asked the question. The task force meets again late this week. I’m confident that the group is going to want to talk at length about the labor contract.

We’re trying to be out of the box on this stuff. We’re not going to be necessarily confined by what the rules are today. Rules are made and rules can be changed.

But you can’t blame workers for wanting good benefits, right? There’s so much money at stake.

I have to wonder if it’s really the rank and file of employees who are fighting for this, as opposed to the union leadership. I don’t know that rank-and-file employees are holding onto these benefits for dear life. I think they want their job. It seems to me that employees could be caught in the middle.

What you reported on your blog [about TriMet threatening to force a strike], we’re not privy to that. They’re working behind the scenes, but we don’t know what that entails.

Of course the provisions [of the union contract] need to be updated. That just seems logical after six years. And the union’s position is "status quo." How can that be a reasonable position?

What do you think about TriMet’s decision to make these meetings private? Does it support candid conversation? Does it make the public less informed?

I do think it’s helpful to the dialogue. I think people just would have been a little bit more hesitant to make a half-baked remark or something like that.

I feel troubled that there is no regular ongoing opportunity for the public at large to weigh in and have enough information to offer suggestions and perspectives to TriMet. I’ve always felt TriMet was very open and very transparent. But I think you also need to know enough to know what to ask for, which is a challenge. It’s just such a complicated organization.

I’m unsettled on how just to engage the public at large. This is such a critical time for people to understand what TriMet is, and then decide if it’s what they want or what they don’t want. We need more buy-in from the public. We need a public mandate. People would know what they expected of TriMet. Maybe they’d be more willing to fund it and offer constructive suggestions instead of just sort of complaining.

I would like some of the electeds to consider that they can’t just keep making greater and greater plans for the region … and nobody’s considering how TriMet’s going to cover the operating costs.

One thing we haven’t heard about, because TriMet doesn’t have a short-term ability to do it, is a tax increase. Should TriMet be asking the legislature to raise the cap on payroll taxes faster? Going to voters with another property tax measure?

There are a number of people on the task force who’ve expressed interest in exploring a reliable additional income revenue stream. A number of us I know for a fact are of a mind that if we were going to build this from scratch, how would we do it – no doubt it would look a lot different than it does today, and I have no doubt we wouldn’t look at revenue sources in the same way.

Do you have an anti-union agenda?

No. I don’t at all. We’re all in this together, and we’re all going to have to sit down. To dig their heels in like [the union leadership] is doing and just hold onto the past is not realistic. It’s not helpful. We’re balancing our budget right now on the backs of the riders who can least afford it. And that’s wrong.

I’m not blaming anybody for where we are or how we got here. It’s just that we need to move on. And it’s not the employees’ fault that we’re here. They made concessions years ago and it’s all developed over time. If we work together, I think everybody can be successful in the future. But stalemate is not moving anything forward. We’re stalled and moving backwards now.

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