The Plain Dealer’s Tom Breckenridge has done a good job covering Turnpike-related stories in recent months, but his piece this week about layoffs of “custodians” seriously misrepresents the nature of the work performed by the employees slated to lose their jobs, and it fails to report on the likely meaning behind the recent rash of cuts at the Turnpike.  So we thought we’d help clear a few things up.

The PD Reports that Kasich-approved Turnpike Executive Director Richard Hodges claims “the turnpike wants to lay off 20 of 32 custodians who clean eight maintenance buildings along the 241-mile toll road.”   But this job title, and associated job description, are thoroughly incomplete.

While it is true there is some custodial work involved with the job, a primary focus of the position is roadway emergency response.

Sources familiar with turnpike maintenance facilities tell us the job is better likened to a first responder than a janitor, as Hodges would have you believe.   The incident responders make hourly trips in maintenance vehicles carrying all the equipment necessary to respond to roadway emergencies – including the jaws of life.    The job description backs up these claims.  A “Custodian (Incident Responder) … must currently possess a valid Class “A” Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) with a tanker endorsement” and will be “assigned to an approximate 30 miles section of roadway”.

Incident Responders will will also need to “respond to emergencies, accident scenes, disabled vehicles, surface spills and other incidents and to “provide traffic control, debris and obstacle cleanup, erect safety devices; operate rescue equipment, fire suppression devices and equipment; assist ill or injured employees” and they “may be exposed to dust and dirt, exposure to human blood and body fluids, animal carcasses, loud noises, vibration from traffic and equipment, odors, extreme weather conditions, hazardous materials and surface spills.”

So it should seem obvious by now that the “Custodians” (aka Incident Responders) being laid off by the Turnpike are not simply overpaid janitors who simply “clean maintenance buildings”.

So why would the director of the Turnpike mislead the PD like that?

The answer, most likely, has to do with Kasich’s plans to sell or lease the turnpike to foreign investors.

It’s important to note that the Turnpike funds itself.  No state money is used.  Toll revenues, according to the PD, are expected to hit a record high this year of $249 million.  Last year the turnpike turned a profit of $11 million.

And yet (also from PD) they currently have 70 fewer employees than they did at the end of 2010.  And now they are cutting nearly 2/3rd of their first responders, making the remaining workers patrol much larger areas, which will most certainly impact service levels and possibly the safety of the drivers who use the turnpike?

The commission is also rushing through changes to health benefits that will require non-union employees to pay more for their insurance.

According to the minutes from the May Turnpike Commission, Vice Chairman Balog asks why the commission planned to implement “this now on January 1, 2013, only on the back of the non-bargaining employees versus implementing it in 2014 when the bargaining employees would also have a change?”

Hodges jumped in to answer the question saying “We believe it is better to move forward in this fashion so that we can demonstrate to our union partners that it’s appropriate for them as well.”   This seems like a pretty big leap of faith on the part of Hodges.  Does he really think the union, after a year of high revenue and a big round of unnecessary layoffs, will just happily agree to cuts in their benefits?  Unlikely.

So why is the Turnpike cutting staff and trimming benefits at a furious rate while they are raking in record revenue and turning a big profit?

Again, it seems to come back to Kasich’s big plans.

Rising toll revenue and shrinking staff costs make the Turnpike more appealing to potential investors.

And when you put all of the Turnpike’s recent decisions into this context, it all makes a lot more sense…

Let’s cut staff costs by laying off a few dozen employees.  And let’s portray them as overpaid “custodians” so the public won’t show any concern.  By the time the real safety or service impacts start to show, we will have sold off the turnpike the highest bidder.

And let’s make some of our employees pay more for their health benefits now.  It will lower our costs short term, and long term it won’t matter since the private investor will fire all the unionized employees and replace them with lower-paid employees who get crappy benefits, just like they did at the private prison.

I certainly could be wrong about Hodges’ intentions.  But I really don’t think I am.

It’s no secret Kasich plans to privatize the Turnpike and use the profits for his own pet projects, and it’s no secret Hodges was hand-picked by Kasich for his current job.  So as we wait for the results of the KPMG study (current estimated cost: $3.4 million) commissioned to give Kasich cover, let’s all keep our eyes on changes at the Turnpike that appear to be strategically aimed at helping the Governor achieve his goal of selling off one of Ohio’s few strategic assets so he can use to money to score some political points for his upcoming reelection campaign.