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Plans for regional transit merger progress

WILLMAR –– Reconciling differences in employee wages and benefits between transit systems in Kandiyohi County and Renville County –– and coming up with a new name that creates a unified brand –– are some of the issues that need to be resolved before the Jan. 1 merger of the two agencies takes place.

Employees from both entities met with transit administrators in June, and will likely meet again in September, to filter through some of their concerns about operating as a joint entity.

Most of the employees’ concerns were about wages, sick leave, vacation time and health insurance, said Tiffany Collins, transit director for Kandiyohi Area Transit, during the KAT joint powers board meeting Friday morning.

Renville County’s Heartland Express transit employees are represented by a union –– KAT’s are not.

Collins said Heartland Express employees have a higher starting salary, but those differences level out for KATs longtime employees.

Wages are “definitely an issue” with the merger, Collins said.

She said the proposed 2015 budget needs to include salaries that provide a “living wage” for employees.

Collins said she’s still studying the salary issues, as well as other concerns that employees brought to the table.

“I feel like we’ve got a good handle on the issues out there,” Collins said, adding that it will take time to provide answers to all the questions.

One question that still remains is what the merged transit system will be called.

Collins said that process is entering “round two” and that it is hoped a new name will be agreed upon soon that will provide a unified marketing and branding tool for the transit system.

Although the merger will result in some changes, Collins said service will continue as always, with riders picked up at the same time and place as always.

The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners and the Willmar City Council approved the transit merger joint powers agreement in July.

Sara Folsted, Renville County Administrator, said commissioners there approved the resolution in June.

Representatives from all three entities will serve on the new joint transit board when the merger becomes official Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, the KAT joint powers board was told Friday that the $400,000 KAT was allocated in the 2014 bonding bill may be more work than it’s worth.

Bev Herfindahl, a program coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Office of Transit, said projects earmarked for those bonds must undergo expensive planning, soil borings and engineering, along with extensive paperwork and hoops to jump through.

KAT had sought the money to build a four-stall garage for its buses.

Board member Kevin Crowley said it was frustrating to learn about the roadblocks to access the money that local legislators had lobbied so hard to obtain.

“I don’t want to spend $200,000 to do preparation work for a $100,000 building,” said Crowley. “It’s a garage.”

Herfindahl encouraged the board to look at other ways to find bus storage space, including having an entity build a garage that KAT could lease.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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