This morning’s big AJC headline — in the print edition, it read “Audit: MARTA spends $50 million too much” — was one of the least surprising things I’ve ever read in our paper.
Not because of some anti-MARTA bias on my part. Rather, it’s because MARTA officials told me as much, almost 2.5 years ago.
In the first part of my special series on MARTA back in May 2010, I wrote:
As you may have heard, MARTA now faces a $120 million budget hole. Believe it or not, the agency projected as early as in 2006 that it would be short $60 million by now, even though revenues were forecast to rise for a decade. Problem was, expenses piled up even faster.
One might summarize the financial history of MARTA (and most public entities) this way:
The economy takes a turn for the worse; MARTA’s budget, which already assumed some operating losses, goes from tenuous to disastrous. Officials warn of (take your pick) drastic, draconian, devastating service cuts unless someone, anyone, finds $50 million in new annual funding. Because the economy has also hit state and local governments, no new money materializes. Service is cut and employees laid off by the hundreds.
The economy takes a turn for the better; MARTA’s losses don’t disappear but do shrink. Still, no new $50 million. Yet the agency restores service and reinstates jobs by the hundreds. Sales tax revenues rise, but expenses rise faster.
The economy takes a turn for the worse ….
In part 3, I wrote:
[B]y mid-2008, when the fiscal 2009 budget was approved, MARTA knew things were getting bad. Its sales-tax forecasts had already been revised downward by $24 million (in reality, shoppers would deliver $54 million less than that).
So, what did the agency do? It planned to boost spending even as revenue declined — to make 2009 the third straight year in which spending growth would outpace revenue growth. And it planned to do the same in 2010.
Even before the bottom fell out, then, MARTA planned to run a $44 million deficit in 2009 and expected to lose another $49 million in 2010. That was the optimistic scenario.
Now, what do we learn from the audit by KPMG? As the AJC reports:
MARTA is spending $50 million above the national average for employee benefits, but if it revamped its health care, retirement and worker compensation plans, it could erase a projected $33 million operating deficit, an audit released Monday reveals.
The story goes on to say KPMG recommended that MARTA outsource a number of functions to private companies in order to save millions of dollars a year. My conclusion was that MARTA should privatize its entire bus operation, which is a more far-reaching proposal than KPMG made. But the principle is similar, and the reason — that persistent $50 million gap — is exactly the same.
Of course, there was nothing prescient about my writing these things back in 2010. Nor anything particularly investigative. All I had to do was ask: MARTA already knew what the problem was.
– By Kyle Wingfield