Democratic Nassau lawmakers are speaking out against County Executive Edward Mangano’s decision to quietly renew the county’s contract with its NICE Bus operator for five years without any discussion in the legislature.
In a letter to Mangano on Thursday, Legis. Laura Curran (D-Baldwin) said the contract renewal — finalized in December 2014 but only discovered by lawmakers this week — came with “no legislative or public airing or input” and was a “missed opportunity to keep costs down” at Nassau Inter-County Express, which has a $131 million annual operating budget.
A spokeswoman for the legislature’s Democratic minority said Curran’s concerns were shared by other Democratic lawmakers.
The county’s original contract with bus operator Transdev — formally Veolia — began in January 2012 and was set to lapse at the end of 2016. But less than three years into the five-year deal, Mangano sent a two-page letter to Transdev notifying the company of the county’s intention to re-up under mostly the same terms as the original contract.
“Upon receipt by you of this notice, the Contract shall be deemed to have been extended to December 31, 2021,” Mangano wrote.
The letter was not provided to the legislature until last September — “tucked away” in a 466-page budget amendment document, Curran complained.
The legislator acknowledged Thursday that nothing can be done now about the renewal, calling it a “lesson for the future.”
Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin called Curran’s concerns “misguided” because the original contract authorized the county executive to extend it by five years. He added that the renewal saves taxpayers money by establishing caps for Transdev’s profits in the second five years — ranging from 3.5 percent to 5 percent — and by creating a fund to provide discounted fares for the disadvantaged.
“It was in the best interest of the County to negotiate when it did because it exacted significant benefits to the Nassau County ridership,” Chief Deputy Nassau County Attorney Lisa LoCurto said in a statement Friday.
NICE CEO Michael Setzer said he would have welcomed the opportunity to have Transdev’s contract discussed by lawmakers and the public before a renewal, but said Transdev officials “purposely . . . stay away from” county government decisions.
Setzer acknowledged there was little negotiating with the county before the extension. But he said he believed the early renewal was in riders’ best interest because the extended commitment allowed Transdev to move forward with several long-term initiatives, including an $8 million technological upgrade that includes installing global positioning systems on all vehicles to give NICE’s dispatchers and 100,000 daily riders real-time information on buses’ whereabouts.
“We saved the county a lot of money,” Setzer said. “ . . . We initiated some service improvements. And we got some good projects underway. So I think we could have made a very strong case that it was in the county’s best interest to proceed with a second five years.”
But Curran said that in negotiating a contract renewal the county should have pushed to cap the maximum cost to the county for bus service. Those costs have exceeded the originally negotiated amounts in every year since Transdev took over the bus system, which was previously run by the MTA.
“It would have incentivized the company to live within agreed-upon costs, and not handcuffed the County to pay Transdev in order to offset cuts in service to our riders,” Curran wrote.
Aaron Watkins-Lopez, a member of the Long Island Bus Riders Union advocacy group who brought the renewal letter to the attention of lawmakers last week, said, with four fare increases and several service cuts over the last four years, bus riders would have been well-served by the county considering alternatives to Transdev.
“If NICE was really saving this much money and was really the better alternative . . . they should have been able to pass public scrutiny without a problem,” said Watkins-Lopez, who also sits on Nassau’s Bus Transit Committee, which governs NICE. “Now we are very stuck with them.”