Change on horizon for CATS management structure

Some pivotal changes that could affect the agency’s upper management are on the horizon for the Capital Area Transit System.

The board governing the parish bus system will receive a set of recommendations Tuesday regarding the agency’s management structure and will set a path to achieve CATS’ transit reforms promised in the 2012 tax election, according to the contract proposal.

CATS commissioned the study in October, hiring New Orleans-based TMG Consulting at a cost of $19,650 to evaluate the agency’s administrative structure and organization and make recommendations on the best way to move forward.

The contract calls for the consultant to identify a “range of alternatives available to CATS for managing and delivering service, from fully direct employees to partially contracted services to fully contracted services.”

CATS Board Chairman Jared Loftus said an independent evaluation is the best way to ensure taxpayer money is used prudently.

“My thought is that there will be major changes,” Loftus said. “In what way? I’m not sure. I’m waiting to see the results on Tuesday.”

But the consulting report has led some, including Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, to wonder if some members of the CATS board are considering privatizing the agency and ousting the chief executive officer.

After a heated Metro Council meeting on Wednesday that centered around appointments to the CATS board, Marcelle said she adamantly opposes privatizing the bus system. She suggested that some people were being appointed to the board to pursue privatizing the system.

“I’m opposed to it,” Marcelle said. “I’m for keeping it like it is because if you privatize you’re going to have to pay a CEO and pay that company. I support the workers that stuck it out. I support the CEO who has come in and turned the system around.”

On her Metro Council Facebook page, Marcelle on Thursday posted: “Attention all CATS employees, and all tax payers there just might be a movement to privatize! It is my fear that if this happens, there will be more costs in administration, (that is the staff that the company is bringing in) and less money for operations, which equates to less services for more money!”

Loftus said Marcelle’s “comments are purely speculative.”

“I’m not sure where she’s getting her information,” he said. “I’m looking forward to what TMG reports on Tuesday and we’ll take it from there.”

Brian Marshall, CATS chief executive officer, declined to comment about the report, saying only that he’s “committed to staying focused.”

Edgar Cage, a Together Baton Rouge leader, noted that if privatization is ultimately recommended, that it can be approached in many ways. Together Baton Rouge is a faith-based nonprofit that campaigned to help CATS win the tax election.

“A lot of people will have an ideological response to privatization, that it’s either a panacea or evil incarnate,” Cage said. “Really, privatization can mean 100 different things, and the devil is in the details.”

Last year, many opponents of the CATS tax criticized the agency for mismanagement and suggested privatizing the company.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, no city or county bus system is truly privatized — rather government agencies contract with a management firm, but typically use the same revenue sources, buses and employees as publicly managed systems.

According to the contract, TMG’s evaluation will compare CATS organization and operations to various transportation companies in other peer cities.

TMG requested budgets, previously conducted transit studies and evaluations of the agency, and an organizational chart with biographies of at least nine members of “upper management” including Marshall and Chief Financial Officer Gary Owens, according to CATS documents requested by The Advocate.

Adam Knapp, Baton Rouge Area Chamber president, said he is hopeful the recommendations will help CATS move forward with implementing its expansion and service improvements.

Knapp said BRAC and other stakeholders have grown frustrated with CATS since the property tax was passed because bus system officials have failed to adopt an implementation plan.

“CATS has spent a lot of time in the headlines without moving forward,” Knapp said.

CATS, a regional transit authority created by the state that answers to the parish Metro Council, has long been plagued with financial shortfalls and a reputation for inadequate service.

Last year, CATS sought a 10.6 mill property tax to improve and expand service and ultimately reduce wait times at peak hours from 75 minutes to 15 minutes.

The tax passed in Baton Rouge and Baker, and failed in Zachary. Officials estimate it will generate $15 million of additional revenue this year for the agency.

CATS officials said the agency would be able to deliver all promises, including more buses, additional routes, better signage and more transfer stations, by 2014.

The CATS board meeting is at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday at BREC headquarters, 6201 Florida Boulevard, to accommodate the public.