Agnes Jaeckel, 85, likes to watch Common Council meetings on Madison City Channel. "It's the best show on TV," she says.
She recently took issue with the discussion of raises for Mayor Paul Soglin and city alders at the same time that the mayor is proposing to hike bus fares by 25 cents in his $266 million budget. Fares also went up by 50 cents in 2008, with a one-way fare now costing $2. (Seniors are $1 and youth/disabled $1.25.)
Jaeckel started tooling around the city's website to find out more about city salaries and benefits. She learned that city employees are eligible for free bus passes from Madison Metro and, in the event of an emergency, free cab rides home. The taxi rides are limited to six a year and are capped at $75 a ride.
Jaeckel resents what she sees as special treatment for city employees and feels "ripped off."
"They're getting all these benefits on the backs of us who are trying to tighten our belts," she says.
Madison Metro general manager Chuck Kamp says there are multiple reasons for offering city employees free bus passes.
First, he says, it's a tool for recruiting high-caliber employees. "It's viewed as an increasingly attractive benefit, especially for younger employees."
Kamp says it also benefits the city by freeing up ramp space for visitors and others who come to the city regularly but don't have access to the transit system. Adding parking, whether underground or above, is expensive, he says, costing between $15,000 and $30,000 per stall.
Kamp says the perk is also environmentally friendly: "When we encourage people to use the bus we're reducing the tons of carbon that get dumped into the atmosphere."
How much does the benefit cost the city?
In 2010, the city paid Metro $137,381 for 119,462 rides by city employees. In 2011, 126,162 rides cost the city $145,086.
Paratransit rides for people with disabilities cost $2,387 in 2010 (for 723 rides) and $1,610 in 2011 (478 rides). The costs are based on a rate of $1.15 per ride.
As for the cab rides, there is no cost to the city, says Kamp. The tab is picked up by the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board. "It isn't used very much," he says. "It's more of an insurance policy." It's also available for those who bicycle or walk to work or for those who carpool, he adds.
Kamp points out that other companies and organizations also offer free bus passes to employees, including St. Mary's Hospital, Meriter Hospital and UW-Madison. Madison College and Edgewood College offer free bus passes to students and have considered adding employees, he says.
These groups, like the city, pay $1.15 to Metro for each ride.
Metro also provides commuter cards to some 90 small businesses and nonprofits, including Isthmus. Employees who use the cards pay the same reduced rate -- $1.15 -- but pick up their own tab.