By Ivan Raconteur
Herald Journal Editor
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN Discussions regarding transit in Wright County took several turns last week, but the future of bus service in the county after June 30 remains unclear.
River Rider, which currently provides transit service in Wright County, will cease operations June 30.
The county has been in negotiations with Trailblazer Transit, which currently serves McLeod and Sibley counties.
During its April 17 meeting, the Trailblazer Joint Powers Board gave Wright County an ultimatum, requiring Wright County to agree to is major terms by April 22.
The terms included Wright County paying 35 percent of the local cost share, if there is one, contributing $210,000 to Trailblazer’s working capital, and accepting the Trailblazer model of operation.
After a lengthy discussion, the Wright County Board accepted Trailblazer’s terms of partnership on a 3-2 vote, with Board Chair Christine Husom and commissioners Mike Potter and Mark Daleiden in favor, and commissioners Pat Sawatzke and Charlie Borrell opposed.
The approval was made contingent upon approval of a joint powers agreement.
The approval also included an amendment stating Trailblazer would be required to hire all River Rider drivers if they pass background checks and are qualified by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
Wright County’s appointed negotiating team, Sawatzke and Potter, attended Thursday’s Trailblazer Joint Powers Board meeting with the intention of continuing negotiations.
According to Sawatzke, the first thing the Trailblazer Board did was pass a motion to stop working with Wright County.
After the meeting, Potter seemed less surprised by the Trailblazer Board’s decision.
“They said their model (of operation) works just fine the way it is,” Potter commented, noting that the Trailblazer Board did not seem interested in changing its operation.
McLeod County Commissioner Ron Shimanski, who is a member of the Trailblazer Joint Powers Board, said the decision was made due to the board’s impression that there was “a lack of total buy-in by the Wright County Board” into the Trailblazer system.
Shimanski said the Trailblazer Board felt Wright County was not going to be a willing partner.
“It’s hard enough to do a merger with a willing partner,” Shimanski commented.
The vote not to continue working with Wright County was 4-0. Shimanski abstained.
“I don’t want to see the process die, but it’s not ready to go forward, either,” Shimanski said after the meeting.
The decision raises the question of what will happen with bus service in Wright County after June 30.
“Now, July 1 is off the table,” Potter said, adding that there is no way to put a system in place between now and then.
Neither Potter nor Sawatzke could say what will happen with transit in Wright County after River Rider ceases operation.
Sawatzke said he was confused by the board’s action, because after voting not to work with Wright County, its next action was to approve hiring three full-time and three part-time drivers to serve Functional Industries in Wright County.
Shimanski said the Trailblazer Board authorized Executive Director Gary Ludwig to advertise for additional drivers to service Functional Industries in Wright County.
Shimanski said in his opinion, the Trailblazer board would be willing to listen if the cities in Wright County approached the board regarding transit service, but does not want to deal with them individually. If the cities formed some sort of coalition, the board would listen.
“Our preference is still to work with the county,” Shimanski said. “The Trailblazer philosophy is to serve the entire county.”
The driver dilemma
There have been a number of issues on which the two boards have disagreed, but according to Potter and Sawatzke, one issue that may have led to Trailblazer breaking off negotiations is Wright County’s insistence that Trailblazer hire all 16 of the River Rider drivers, as long as they pass background checks and are MnDOT certified.
The issue is significant to Wright County.
Sawatzke described the potential liability of having 16 people out of work as “concerning.” He explained River Rider is self-funded, so if the drivers file for unemployment, Wright County will have to pay the cost. He said he has not calculated the total potential liability, but estimated it could run to six figures.
Sawatzke said it has been mentioned several times that the potential agreement between Wright County and Trailblazer was to be a partnership.
“A partnership is a two-way street,” Sawatzke commented, adding that he wished Trailblazer had been willing to hire the River Rider drivers.
Sawatzke noted if Wright County entered an agreement with Trailblazer, and if drivers other than the River Rider drivers were hired, Wright County could end up paying for both the old drivers (unemployment benefits) and the new drivers.
Potter took a more moderate view on the driver issue, noting that the Trailblazer Board has already agreed it would guarantee interviews to the River Rider drivers.
Shimanski said the driver issue was not the issue.
“I don’t think hiring the drivers was the deal breaker,” Shimanski said. “It was a general feeling we’re not ready for a merger.”
He noted that when the subject of Trailblazer possibly moving into Wright County was first discussed, he thought it would be a great opportunity for Trailblazer to grow and take advantage of its administrative capabilities, as well as efficiencies of scale offered by a larger service area.
A shaky agreement
Wright County’s approval of Trailblazer’s main points during Tuesday’s meeting was anything but simple.
“We didn’t have the negotiations I hoped we would have,” Sawatzke said, regarding the April 17 Trailblazer meeting.
He noted the Trailblazer Board was requiring Wright County to accept its terms on the main points before negotiating.
“It was as close to ‘take it or leave it’ as you can get,” Borrell agreed.
A motion was made to accept Trailblazer’s terms.
Sawatzke said the board couldn’t approve the terms because it didn’t know what the “Trailblazer model” is. He challenged the other board members to define it.
Husom said two of the three cities she represents are in favor of the county moving forward with an agreement with Trailblazer, and they represent 20,000 county residents.
“We’re bound by law to provide transportation to those who can’t provide it themselves,” Husom said.
Daleiden reminded the board that it had previously agreed by consensus that its first priority was for rides to continue after July 1.
“How much is it going to cost, and what are we going to get for services? We can’t answer either of those questions,” Sawatzke noted.
Borrell asked how the $210,000 cost would be divided among the cities.
“I feel confident,” Daleiden said. “We need to do something. Trailblazer is the only choice.”
“I think we need to get into a partnership,” Husom said.
“I had hoped we’d be able to go back to each of our cities and tell them how much it is going to cost each of them,” Borrell commented.
Potter called for a vote, but the discussion continued.
Borrell said the Trailblazer Board doesn’t know what the Trailblazer model is.
“We’re trying to get somewhere,” Daleiden said. “There’s going to be a lot more negotiating. It’s going to be a living document.”
He noted the board was not approving a joint powers agreement, but approving the three points presented by Trailblazer.
Chief Deputy Attorney Brain Asleson agreed. “We are not agreeing to a joint powers agreement. We are indicating our intent to move forward,” Asleson said.
“To me, this seems like a good-faith effort,” Husom said.
“River Rider stops July 1,” Montrose City Council Member Mark Krotzer said. “The cities asked you to represent Wright County.”
“Many of us along Highway 12 are under-served now,” he added.
“I think we’re bargaining from a position of weakness, and this agreement will make us weaker,” Sawatzke said.
A motion to table the discussion failed 3-2, with Potter, Husom, and Daleiden opposed, and Sawatzke and Borrell in favor.
An amendment to the original motion requiring Trailblazer to hire River Rider drivers passed 3-2, with Sawatzke, Borrell, and Husom in favor, and Potter and Daleiden opposed.
“They’re going to keep adding amendments until no one at Trailblazer will accept it,” Daleiden commented.
An amendment to make the approval contingent on approval of a joint powers agreement passed 3-2, with Sawatzke, Borrell, and Husom in favor, and Potter and Daleiden opposed.
The original motion to accept Trailblazer’s terms was approved 3-2, with Husom, Potter and Daleiden in favor, and Sawatzke and Borrell opposed.
A motion to replace Sawatzke on the negotiating team failed 4-1, with Daleiden in favor.
Daleiden said he was concerned about the perception of having a commissioner who voted against the agreement participating on the negotiating team.
Borrell made a motion to guarantee that Trailblazer would not lose any money on anything in Wright County that Wright County agrees to. Asleson pointed out that this was vague, and Borrell withdrew his motion.