The public sector sometimes struggles with functioning like a business, but W. Curtis Stitt, president and CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority, says COTA is a business; it just has a different funding paradigm.
“Like any other business, we sell a product or service. Our service is public transportation. And there are lots of competitors out in the market, and an overwhelming majority of the people in our community have one of those competitors in their driveway — their personal vehicle,” he says.
“Like every other business, you’ve got to continue to evaluate where we are as organizations, public or private sector, and continue to find ways to remain competitive,” Stitt says.
The key phase there is continue, he says. You’re never done trying to improve.
“There’s a scripture that talks about pressing toward the mark of the higher calling, and that really talks about this. (It) is a continuous effort, we’re always pressing toward that next level, that higher level,” Stitt says. “Once we feel that we’ve made it, that’s when we start falling behind.”
Part of that continual effort is looking for ways to create efficiencies within the organization, which has 1,000 employees and an annual budget of $100 million.
You want to improve your service, knowing that you have limited resources. Because if you can operate more efficiently, you will be able to push more service out onto the street, he says.
More than a decade ago, COTA wasn’t meeting the charge of providing public transportation needs in the community. It experienced a number of deficit budget years. It cut service. It laid off employees.
By taking hard steps to balance the budget and convince taxpayers to pass a sales tax levy, the organization turned itself around.
“Since 2006, we’ve increased our level of service by 80 percent,” Stitt says, who was with the organization but didn’t become president and CEO until 2012. COTA also has partnered with others to get people to areas of employment, such as the New Albany International Business Park and the Rickenbacker area.
COTA is well positioned financially now, although it is looking for voters to renew that sales tax this November.
“It is something that we have to continue to remind ourselves, that we’ve got to operate with financial prudence,” he says. “We’ve got to look for new and creative ways to save money, and we’ve got to continue to think outside the box.
“We can’t continue to do the same thing that we’ve done for the last 35, 40 years at COTA and expect to be able to keep pace with the growing demands of our community.”
Stitt says COTA’s leadership team examined the budget to look at reducing the largest line items. The largest block is wages, salaries and benefits.
In order to reduce the cost of medical insurance premiums, a challenge for any business, COTA initiated wellness programs and biometrics testing. Stitt says this was something for-profit companies were already doing, but COTA hadn’t.
The initiatives weren’t popular when management first started talking about them.
The first step to getting buy-in was education about the reasons why, he says. Management worked closely with the employees — the majority who are union — to explain the program, including that it was voluntary, and stress the benefits.
The program also had an incentive component, lower employee contributions, which helped with buy-in.
After the program was up and running, COTA had employees learn of significant health issues as a result of a biometric screening.
“I can’t or won’t say, it did save their life, but there were potentially life saving discoveries about their health,” Stitt says.
Of course, the screenings are confidential, but some employees volunteered to step up and say how it helped them, he says. Sharing stories about individual successes encouraged others to get involved.