The Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority is hiring, according to decals wrapped around the city’s numerous buses. A glance at the authority’s website shows a list of open positions that are very high-profile: Executive Director, Director of Operations, Director of Maintenance, Manager of Planning and Development. The list is fairly extensive.
“We have 351 budgeted positions in FY2015, which includes to the end of September, and of those we have 322 filled,” said BJCTA Board of Directors member Adam Snyder, speaking on Monday, June 27. But Snyder cuts right to the chase: “Of those, I’d say the most important position we need to have filled is that of executive director.”
This has been the question hanging over the transit authority since last fall, when on October 9, 2015, five of the nine members of the board called an emergency meeting and voted to terminate then-Executive Director Ann August, who had been with the authority since January 2013.
Since then, the transit authority has had an interim executive director, Barbara Murdock, overseeing its day-to-day operations. It is not the fact that Murdock holds the position, but the fact that it is an interim position — and, by definition, lacking in stability — that causes problems of perception because, as Snyder said, “having a strong executive director in some ways is symbolic, to give public confidence. But more than that, having a capable and world-class executive director will help lead our system to achieve what it needs to achieve in order to be a world-class system and to serve all the people of Jefferson County.”
Snyder said it was fortunate that “the board voted to reopen the process, and re-advertise to see if we can get some more applicants.” However, he added, “Unfortunately, the board didn’t agree to hire a search firm, which is something I would have liked to see happen, because just throwing the advertising up on a website doesn’t necessarily get the best applicants … I’m hoping we’ll be able to find that person through this process. I haven’t been satisfied thus far.”
The BJCTA staffing issues seem to circle back to August’s departure. “I would say that since Ms. August left, we have seen a lot of people leave the organization by one way or another,” Snyder said. “And I’m not going to comment on any specific cases, but when you have this many high-level vacancies and this many people in an interim position, it does not really say a lot of good things about where we’re heading and where our leadership is at.”
One thing that seems clear is that the two dread questions of finances and executive leadership are intertwined, or at the very least connected. The question of finance affects, among other things, what leeway the authority has for capital expenditures, such as developing new bus routes or upgrading equipment.
“Where we’re at financially, looking at our latest numbers — we’re behind in the budget, but the way our funding is set up we don’t have a dedicated funding source, and that really hampers us from being able to do the type of capital projects and regular growth that we need,” said Snyder.
“We are highly dependent on the budgets of the municipalities that support us, and each year we try to get funding not only for operational support, which is based on the number of miles we run in a city, but also capital support. And usually that capital support funding does not come in. So if we had some dedicated funding, that would really help us plan for regular upgrades of our bus system, for our maintenance facility, which is woefully inadequate…”
According to documents from meetings for the month ending April 30, 2016, BJCTA shows a negative income difference of $2,860,480.07. In that same statement of financial highlights, the capital account balance is shown as $10,000.
Snyder is not necessarily pessimistic, but his assessment of transit’s challenges is stark. “I think our statistics speak for themselves. Our numbers are down. Our buses are in the shop more than they are out on the road than they were a year ago…right now we’re behind on our budget and our expenses are above our income. … We have less riders now,” he said.
“I don’t think that the last year has been a good year for transit,” he added. “I think the previous two or three years we were moving in the right direction. I’d like to see us moving in the right direction again. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues on the board have said, ‘Oh we’ve gotten a bunch of bad publicity, and not a lot of folks are interested in being our executive director, so we should just accept what we get.’ And I’m really not willing to accept less.
“This city deserves a first-class transit system, and right now they’re not getting it,” Snyder said.
He continued, “And I’m hoping new leadership will help turn that around, but also it’s got to be a broader commitment; it can’t just be on the shoulders of one executive director. It’s got to be the city, the county, the municipalities, the State Legislature stepping up and saying, ‘This is a priority for economic development, for the social welfare of the people of our city and our county.’
“This has to be a priority, and until it’s a priority for more than just an executive director or the board of the transit authority, until it’s a priority for a broader range of folks, this transit system is going to be stuck in second gear.”