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Bus in snow
A Madison Metro bus pulls into traffic during a snowfall.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz doesn't want city bus drivers earning six-figures due to overtime and other compensation anymore.

Cieslewicz has asked Metro Transit General Manager Chuck Kamp, bus drivers union leader Gene Gowey and others to find a solution to absenteeism and staff shortfalls that created a demand for overtime and let one driver earn $159,258 and six others more than $100,000 in 2009.

The mayor said Metro is "very well managed," but suffering due to absenteeism and provisions of a union contract that limits the use of part-time drivers and gives senior employees who make the most money first crack at extra work.

"I don't begrudge the individuals from working hard," Cieslewicz said. "(But) we have an issue: a lot of drivers being off work for various reasons. We have to take a look at that and try to get the rate of absenteeism down."

Kamp, Gowey, city Human Resources Director Brad Wirtz and the mayor's fiscal efficiency auditor, Andrew Statz, will conduct the review, Cieslewicz said.

"I want to approach this cooperatively with the union," the mayor said.

Kamp welcomed the move.

"I think it's very helpful," he said. "We are looking under all rocks to find ways we can work on this."

Gowey did not return calls.

Overtime over budget

City records show Metro was $290,000 under budget for salaries, but $467,200 over budget for overtime in 2009. The agency spent $1.94 million on overtime that year, the most ever.

"I am not alarmed there was overtime," Transit and Parking Commission Chairman Gary Poulson said. "I do have concerns about the amount of time involved here."

Driver John E. Nelson, who could not be reached through Metro or the union, earned $159,258 in 2009, including $109,892 in overtime and other pay, the highest earnings of any city employee, city records show. Seven drivers earned more than $100,000, and 23 others between $70,000 and $100,000 last year. Of those 30 drivers, 11 earned more than $25,000 in overtime pay.

The bus drivers' contract, which calls for pay up to $26.02 per hour, expired at the end of December and the sides are in negotiations. Senior drivers make about $39 an hour working overtime.

All the overtime -- those driving most worked 50- to 80-hour weeks, including Nelson -- didn't compromise safety, Kamp said. Drivers making more than $100,000 had no preventable accidents and solid customer service records in 2009, he said.

Metro, Kamp said, had a five-year low in preventable accidents in 2009 and got an insurance premium reduction of $204,000 for its record.

Still, Poulson would like to see changes.

"I do want Metro to provide a safe service," he said. "I think there should be a realistic limit to the number of hours a driver can be on the road."

The new contract should allow more liberal use of part-time drivers, he said.

Mechanics had high earnings, too

Metro mechanics also had high earnings driven by overtime, records show. Seven mechanics earned between $70,000 and $99,900 last year, with overtime pay ranging from $19,000 to $36,000.

Drivers and mechanics -- like all employees in the state pension plan -- are motivated to mount high earnings because pensions are based on their highest earning years.

Concern about bus driver earnings first surfaced after Metro changed from a Downtown hub to a transfer station system in 1998.

In 1997, before the change, no driver made more than $70,000. Two years later, as Metro struggled to fill vacancies, two drivers topped $100,000 and seven others more than $70,000.

Since then, such earnings have "ebbs and flows," Cieslewicz said, adding that he wants to see the trend ended at the close of 2010.

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