Dozens of employees of Heartland Express attended the Isanti County Board meeting Aug. 19 in support of their co-workers and Public Transit Director Paul Smith, who plead with the board not to pass a resolution seeking bids from outside companies to provide public transit services to Chisago and Isanti counties.
Ultimately, Isanti County Board passed that resolution unanimously; Chisago County Board of Commissioners passed their own resolution 4-1 later that evening during their board meeting.
Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is facilitating the bidding process for a new transit organization, with the counties providing input to MnDOT on the selection of an organization if an acceptable bid is received. However, if no acceptable bids are received, Heartland Express will continue to provide public transit services for the counties.
“This is obviously a difficult agenda item,” said Isanti County Administrator Julia Lines. “It’s something I know that the commissioners are not taking lightly, and neither are the Chisago County Commissioners. This is something that has been in discussion for at least a couple of months. As you know, the county is looking, organizationally, for efficiencies in areas of customer service improvement. This is a decision that is really a business decision at the heart of it.”
She noted that it is a decision that may impact many employees lives, and that she appreciates the heartfelt words that were shared at the meeting by Heartland Express employees.
Lines explained the resolution is giving permission to MnDOT to go out for bids, and those bids will be for the same or extended service, which is the criteria for accepting any bids received.
“There may not be any bids that meet the criteria,” she continued. “If that’s the case, then Heartland Express will continue as it is today. We appreciate the professionalism of the Heartland staff in continuing to provide great service in the interim period, which is a difficult, awkward thing to do. We will be as transparent as we can through this process moving forward.”
Employees, Smith make their case
During the public comment section of the board meeting, three public transit employees and Smith addressed the board.
Heartland Express driver Dan Krause read a letter into public record from Heartland Express employees. “This decision will have a lasting impact, not only on the employees of Heartland Express, who have faithfully served our communities, but also the citizens who rely on us for their daily transportation needs,” Krause said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Heartland Express drivers had risked their own health and personal safety, Krause continued, noting many other county employees were able to reduce their risks by working from home, shutting their doors to the public, or having appropriate space to achieve social distancing.
“We are respectfully requesting that the board of commissioners postpone the vote on this resolution to allow discussions to take place with the various departments within the counties . . . to better understand the long-term impacts this decision will have on the citizens we serve,” he said.
Other items addressed by Krause were contracts already in place for providing transportation for medical rides, work groups, and rides for students starting school in the fall; scheduling rides for the Veterans Department in Isanti County and administration of the volunteer driver program for both counties, which are not part of MnDOT’s contract for services; and, the displacement of 35 employees of Heartland Express, and their ability to find similar work and benefits
“There is not need to rush to a decision,” he added. “Heartland Express has existed for almost 35 years. Our community trusts us and we have always represented our elected officials with positive attitudes, dignity, and respect.”
Next to speak was driver Shanna Andreotti, employed for two years with Heartland Express.
She urged the commissioners to think of family, friends, and neighbors they know who use Heartland Express, noting the commissioners would want those people to be in the best hands possible and that is what Heartland Express employees provide.
She acknowledged the growth of Heartland Express in the last two years, with expanded service days, employees, and routes, asking if the commissioners know of the different services provided by transit.
“Your decision will make a big impact on our community and Heartland employees, so please take the time to answer any of the questions and gain any knowledge that you may need that will make such a big impact on our communities,” Andreotti concluded.
Next to speak was Ellen Fordahl, who has been employed with Heartland Express for six-and-one-half years.
“I’m asking you to consider some less quantifiable implications of the decision to cut 35 well-paying jobs. Many of us have chosen to work in the county in which we live in order to be close to home, to care for elderly parents, special needs family members, school-aged children and grandchildren,” Fordahl said.
A dissolution of Heartland Express may cause many of the transit employees who are older in age to miss out on Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA) benefits they are counting on to sustain them in retirement, Fordahl continued. The employees who are losing their jobs may not be able to find other jobs with as good of benefits or that are full-time, and end up relying on the county for assistance, she added.
“We don’t want a handout, we just want to work. Please vote against the outsourcing of Heartland Express, or, at a minimum, delay the vote for a period of public comment,” she said.
She added that Heartland Express drivers live in the community and know the community, adding that it is designated a dementia-friendly community. “If you bring in people from outside, they don’t know who goes into Walmart and might get lost and we have to go in and fish them out and bring them home, and we know where they belong,” she said.
Addressing the commissioners last was Smith. “I took the morning off to be able to come here and sit with the Heartland Express staff, not as the director, but as their friend and co-worker, and that shares word-for-word what they are going through,” he said.
Encouraging the board to look at the larger picture of how this decision will affect not only the public transit department, but the community at large, Smith continued, “I know our department has had struggles for a long time. This last year has not been the easiest . . . we’ve come through. As the director, I take responsibility for the problems that occurred during my tenure here, and understand that changes need to be made, are being made; it’s a work in progress for us. Despite the drama that has surrounded our department, we have made great strides forward that I don’t think are necessarily represented here or with just a glance from a distance here.
“What I would just like to leave as a closing statement is just my appreciation for my staff; I just can’t express how much respect I have for them and the way that they do perform their jobs,” Smith concluded emotionally. “Every one of my drivers, dispatchers, and everyone that works for me, truly cares about the people they serve. They look after them; they’re more than a job for them.”
Joint statement from Chisago and Isanti counties
Chisago and Isanti counties released a joint press release Aug. 20 regarding their decision.
“We know this Board action has generated some confusion and concern. We want you to know that both county boards very much value public transit, and this service will not be going away, we are simply looking into options for potential expanded service to benefit the citizens of Isanti and Chisago counties who rely on public transit, the press release stated.
It also included a quote from Isanti County Commissioner Susan Morris, “There will still be bus service in Isanti and Chisago counties, there might just be a different name on the buses. Our goal is excellent service and we believe there are other agencies that have achieved this, and they can bring their model here. Providing transportation service to our seniors, disabled and veterans will always be a priority for Isanti County.”
The press release reiterated that if no acceptable bids are received through the MnDOT solicitation process, then Heartland Express transit service will continue as is.