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The Bus Discussion @ Council Last Night: A Fiasco by Any Definition

Update, 2 PM: A reader wrote today, asking why I seem relatively unconcerned about this vote (as a practical matter). That’s my omission: in the discussion last night, it’s clear that Generac plans to reduce funding in the future. Advocates of this project will have to find other corporate sponsors and make it work with the existing transportation management. The first is hard; the second is even harder. No one who voted for this project will have any personal ability to get more money for it, and all will have to rely on existing management from Janesville. They’ve only postponed the inevitable.

There are times when simply listening to advocates talk about a program undermines its long-term value.  Last night, during the discussion of Janesville Transit’s bus to Whitewater, was one of those times.  In the end, Common Council reduced funding from the request (but, as a someone commenting noted), funded even over what this year’s funding was.  

Still, given the choice between supporting or opposing a mediocre project, I’d rather oppose on principle than accede on supposed expediency  

There was, really, much confirmation through the discussion that the whole project has descended into a shambles, a mediocre and incompetently run effort.  There’s value in seeing that – this is what happens when a project begins with too little foresight, and is trusted to dodgy data and fumbling bureaucrats.    

There’s not the slightest chance that I’d change my position on this project after last night’s discussion – on the contrary – one may be at least grateful to stand far away from a gaggle of mediocre bureaucrats who are flacking this proposal.

Generac’s Role.  Generac certainly bears a responsibility for each dollar of public money that subsidizes its private business.  No one stuffed tax money in that company’s pockets – they took subsidies from state and federal and local public sources to advance their private corporate interests.  That’s needless and wrong.

Oops! Generac’s Not Paying $47,830, They’re Only Paying $18,000.  Hard to believe, but true – the financial documents that Janesville’s Dave Mumma gave Whitewater only two weeks ago were unconfirmed, speculative junk: turns out Generac wasn’t agreeing to $47,830 for the next year, they were agreeing to only $18,000 (yes, really).

Tim Hearden, vice president of operations for Generac, told Council last night that:

Generac never committed to any forty-seven-thousand-dollar number. That I certainly can tell you.

So, how did that larger figure come about?

Wait for it – that wasn’t from pledges of support or commitments at all – it was just a list of unconfirmed cost breakdowns.  Needless to say, that’s not how that higher figure was presented at the last Council meeting.  

Generac hadn’t agreed – Janesville’s transit director just left Whitewater to assume that they had.    

Hard to believe, but true.

The Origin of the Program.  Oddly, Generac’s corporate representative and public officials are at odds over how this program even started.  That’s both strange and revealing – in a successful program, the participants would be rushing to claim credit.  Not here.    

Public officials claim this was all Generac’s idea, but Generac’s vice president of operations flatly disputes those claims. 

Last night, Janesville’s Jennifer Petruzzello, Neighborhood Services Director (and supervisor of Dave Mumma) contended that

Two years ago, the City of Janesville was approached by Generac and the City of Whitewater regarding the possibility of a regional transit system…”

(Video not yet online). 

But that’s not what Generac’s Tim Hearden, vice president of operations for Generac, recalls:

This was not a Generac approaching Janesville like we heard earlier, the Janesville Transit Department, along with the City of Whitewater, approached Generac, saying that they had tried to do this bus service for quite a few years and were looking for some seed sponsorship to be able to start a program that they thought was beneficial to these geographically distant communities…

(Video not yet online). 

So, who’s right?  Was this Generac’s idea, or Whitewater’s?  That is, where did this bad idea originate?

Although I believe that Generac should pay far more for this program than they are paying, a review of State of Wisconsin Supplemental Rural Transportation Assistance Program documents fundamentally corroborates Generac’s account. 

As early as 2009, Dave Mumma was listed as project applicant and recipient for a STRAP grant:

Conduct a feasibility study for: 1) establishing commuter service between Janesville, Milton, and Whitewater and the rural areas in between these areas, 2) establishing an internal transit service within Milton, and 3) reviewing and upgrading the shared-ride taxi service in Whitewter [sic].

Again, Mumma received  another grant for 2010:

Establish commuter service between Janesville, Milton and Whitewater to address the lack of public transportation available in the corridor. At this time only citizens with private vehicles can travel to these destinations for education, employment, health care, shopping, community services and access to the regional transportation network.

Generac’s hiring needs didn’t begin until November 2011 (see, http://gazettextra.com/news/2011/nov/30/300-positions-open-generac/).

I’ve no water to carry for Generac – and think they should pay for all they receive – but this looks like an ongoing Janesville transportation scheme in search of a justification. 

That matters, because it says that Janesville’s Mumma had years of public money to plan this project and still made a hash of it.  

Going Forward.  A few suggestions: 

1. Council decided last night to consider this issue again in August, not next November.  That makes sense – waiting to the last minute makes careful consideration too difficult.  

2.  After years of presentations before our Council – and years of trying to make this program work – it’s clear that Janesville’s Dave Mumma is fundamentally unable to make this a success.

The more he speaks, the worse the case for the bus becomes.  

3. For City Manager Clapper – One hopes the best for your career here, and a key to success is avoiding these supposed partners from Janesville who are credibility- and competency-challenged. No one in Whitewater owes these out-of-town bureaucrats their mediocrity.  

We can do better than they’re doing, on much better projects than this ramshackle one (that’s an understatement). 

Overall, though, the bus discussion is what one might call a teachable moment – what not do do, how not to plan, and how important it is to turn away from yesterday’s lack of good sense.

3 comments for “The Bus Discussion @ Council Last Night: A Fiasco by Any Definition

  1. The Phantom Stranger
    11/20/2013 at 12:26 PM

    …and Milton’s stuck for $27,000..? Ghost Riders on a Ghost Bus in the Sky…what a waste of taxpayers’ money at the expense of a multi-billion dollar corporation. We now have our own Hooper Bloob Highway Express!

  2. Anonymous
    11/20/2013 at 1:55 PM

    Ii is better than it was. Roadblock is that the three oldest members vote as a block. They stick together. All they need for majority is one more vote. They usually sit together and they vote together. If one leaves you will see way more flexibility.

  3. JOHN ADAMS
    11/20/2013 at 2:39 PM

    Regardless of how the vote went last night, with the aid of a voting block or otherwise, support was – at least tactically – unsound. A voting block in this case only works well if (1) the block controls the performance of the programs for which it votes, (2) there’s no need for performance, or (3) performance is assured.

    There is a need for performance in this case, funding is diminishing, and no one who voted for the program can create personally a positive outcome for it.

    As a matter of ideology, one may ‘believe’ in the bus and so support it, but tactically, as a political position, support for it in Whitewater is a bad bet.

    That bet will only get worse over time.