Metra board members have agreed to hire a Chicago accounting firm for $12.6 million to pull the commuter rail agency’s financial management system out of the Stone Age.
“This may not be one of the sexiest issues Metra has to deal with,” Chairman Martin Oberman said at Metra’s monthly board meeting Wednesday.
But Oberman said, “This may be the single most important management step, other than hiring Don [Orseno as Metra CEO], that this board has taken in the last 1 1/2 years.”
By replacing Metra’s current financial management system, Metra will be better able to identify efficiencies, save costs and improve services, Oberman said.
Any proof of savings would probably be welcomed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has proposed cutting $20.8 million from Metra’s annual budget and has vowed not to consider any new taxes without a discussion of “reforms.”
Oberman recalled that jaws dropped among a group of mostly new board members — appointed following an uproar over a hefty buyout to former Metra CEO Alex Clifford — when they learned a year and a half ago that Metra was using paper to perform some basic financial functions.
Metra still uses paper forms for purchase requisitions, purchase orders, incoming and outgoing invoices and pay stubs, officials said.
The $12.6 million, five-year financial systems deal with Crowe Horwath includes nearly 2,000 hours of support and “a lot of handholding,” Metra’s Chief Information Officer Cherie Kizer said.
Metra employees will need it because they will be “leapfrogging” over systems that are 25 years old and asked to suddenly work in a 21st century software environment, Kizer said.
Crowe Horwath was among seven bidders for the project, and the $12.6 million deal came in far below the $27.8 million Metra anticipated paying.
However, Metra Chief Financial Officer Tom Farmer said the savings would merely be moved “somewhere [within Metra] where there’s more mouths to feed.”
Rauner’s proposed $170 million combined cut to Metra, the CTA and Pace would give Metra many more “mouths to feed.” It also poses a “safety issue,” Metra board member John Plante argued Wednesday.
Transit funding cuts will lead to service cuts and/or fare increases that will drive riders from public transportation to their cars and onto far less safe roads, Plante said.
“People will die because they couldn’t or wouldn’t take public transportation,” Plante said. “This has to be considered when you start cutting budgets.”
Also Wednesday, Metra officials said an unfunded federal mandate to install new safety technology on all trains by Dec. 31, 2015, is still expected to cost Metra $400 million. U.S. senators are working on a bill to extend the deadline to Dec. 31, 2020, as only about half of the work has been completed nationwide, they said.
Faced with the Super Bowl Sunday blizzard and snow-related glitches, Metra’s February on-time performance rate fell below the 95 percent goal, to 92.5 percent on-time, officials said Wednesday. During the February rush hour, 91.2 percent of trains were on time.
The worst rush-hour performers were North Central Service, at 81.4 percent; Milwaukee-North, 86.4 percent; and BNSF, 87.6 percent.