The association representing school bus operators says it spent $36,000 on a consultant suggested by a government member and partially funded by the province, but is only being strung along by the Department of Education.
“That’s exactly what it is, a lobbyist,” said Karl Hudson, a director of the Newfoundland and Labrador School Bus Operators Association on the hiring of Robert Lundrigan, a consultant who is also a former educator and past president of the provincial Progressive Conservative party.
Lundrigan’s bill is $36,000, not all of which has been paid, according to Hudson.
“There has been no response since Feb. 28. (The government) don’t care. They are doing things their own way. It’s their way or nothing.”
The bill was paid for through association dues, plus a $10,000 one-off operating grant from the provincial government that the association said was sought by them to help pay the consultant.
Education Minister Clyde Jackman said Monday he did approve the grant to help pay for the consultant in hopes of getting a solution to the school busing conundrum, but it didn’t work.
Hudson and fellow Conception Bay North school bus operator and association president Kerry Noel say the association can’t afford the consultant anymore, and the lobbying effort hasn’t worked.
Noel said hiring of a consultant was suggested by then Carbonear-Harbour Grace MHA Jerome Kennedy.
The operators say the Department of Education is setting up a bus tender template that will put small operators in the province out of business and set up large blocks of bus routes that only big companies can bid on.
Hudson said the operators have nothing to show for the money they spent on the consultant, who they say tried in earnest to help them.
Kennedy, who has gone back to practising law, did not confirm he suggested the association hire a consultant, nor would he discuss the bus operators’ concerns.
“Basically, that is as far as I’m willing to go. As MHA, I did have contact with Kerry Noel,” Kennedy said. He said he did what any MHA would do — tried to help.
Hudson said the school bus operators even went to a $100-a-plate PC fundraiser three years ago to get five-minute meetings with two cabinet ministers there — Jackman and then Service NL Minister Paul Davis.
And last year, when called on to support the PCs in the byelection, the group subsequently got another meeting with the government, Hudson said.
“We thought we were going to get somewhere with it,” Noel said of their ongoing dealings with the government, which they now feel is only going to result in a contract model that will put them at a disadvantage.
Their problem is that since new regulations came in for school buses — requiring factory-installed safety features — the price of buses on the used market is prohibitive, Noel and Hudson say.
They say the way the government tenders contracts leaves bus operators struggling, especially if any new requirements arise over the life of the contract.
The private bus operators want contracts to be negotiated through the association and possibly by the Public Utilities Board.
According to emails written to the government last August, the consultant sought a 15 per cent raise for the bus operators to help them offset rising costs not covered by their contracts.
The raise was not granted and, according to the operators, despite government assurances there were enough used buses on the Canadian market to satisfy regulatory changes, school busing was almost in chaos last September because of a shortage of used vehicles for sale that fit provincial requirements.
But Hudson said 50 buses suddenly became available on the market after a company on the mainland lost a contract.
However, Noel and Hudson said bus operators will be in the same predicament this fall, as some older buses have to be decommissioned.
“The salesman said it was like winning the lottery. They could have went west. Right off the bat we had to go and book them and send the deposit. We were afraid,” Hudson said.
“(The government is) content to wait and let all this confusion happen and it’s the kids who are going to suffer.”
“The used bus prices have skyrocketed, especially if anybody knows a Newfoundlander wants it,” Noel said.
“You’re better off buying new.”
But they say bus operators are reluctant to purchase new buses or high-priced used ones, nor will their banks give them the loans, because they can’t be guaranteed they will win the tender next time around — for instance, about 50 contracts in the province are up in June 2016.
“We need some kind of long-term security,” Noel said.
“What bank is going to give you $200,000 for two vehicles for two years? And after that, who knows?”
Some operators have contracts worth as little as $30,000, and contracts average about $40,000, Noel said.
According to Noel, one operator did negotiate with the government after being the sole bidder on a contract and got $15,000 more than the average.
The bus operators have been asking for a better arrangement for a decade, but after recent events, they say their group is now divided, especially after hiring the consultant didn’t get them anywhere.
“It’s almost like government was giving us false hope,” Hudson said.
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