Bob Baer, retiring head of Metro, looks forward to next chapter in his civic life
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 25, 2010 - Bob Baer is marking the end of his tenure as Metro's CEO and president but if he has his way about it, he's not riding off into the sunset.
Bob Baer attended what may well be his last Metro meeting as a staff member last week. Former Chesterfield Mayor John Nations, who earlier this year led the successful ballot issue to increase St. Louis County's transportation sales tax, took over the reins from Baer as Metro CEO and president last Tuesday.
But that shift won't necessarily mean the end of Baer's Metro connection. He's hoping to be appointed to the agency's board of directors and perhaps come back to the agency to teach a class on management.
Three years ago Baer agreed to head the agency for what was supposed to be an interim period while a search was launched for a new CEO and president following the departure of Larry Salci.
With the agency in financial straits and unable to offer an attractive salary for the position, the 90 days stretched into three years.
In November 2008 voters defeated a half-cent increase in the sales tax. That exacerbated Metro's budget crunch, forcing the agency to cut service severely in March 2009 as Baer continued to lobby for financial support for the ailing agency.
Nations, then mayor of Chesterfield, chaired a successful campaign for a sales tax increase after officials put it on the April ballot. The measure passed. County officials campaigned on the promise that the new revenue would be split 50-50 between operations and capital improvements, Baer said.
With the sales tax increase ensuring more money for operations, Metro launched a search for a new head earlier this year. In August, it announced it was hiring Nations.
But if Baer has anything to say about it, he will be back -- possibly as a Metro board member next year.
"Clearly I'm a Type A personality," he said in an interview after the board meeting Friday when officials announced a scholarship is being established in his name.
"I'm not going to go home and vegetate. I can't do that. But I am going to slow down because I won't be here every day all day. I won't have evening meetings. I won't have weekend phone calls constantly."
When he's finally out of Metro's offices for good, it will be the people he worked with that he'll miss, he said. "Wherever you are, you don't miss the politics, the b.s., all the problematic things, but you miss the people," he said.
Baer said he was at Metro three days last week but plans to come in less as "John becomes up to speed on everything that's going on," he said. "He and I have a goal of having a seamless transition. We don't want anything to slip through the cracks."
Baer noted "some important issues going on right now" at Metro, including union negotiations.
While Metro is in good hands with Nations, Baer said, the agency still faces challenges ahead. All four union contracts are expiring soon, and, despite passage of the sales tax, the agency, like other public entities, is hurting, he said.
Shrinking sales tax revenue because of the ailing economy and costs that the agency cannot control are bringing additional financial challenges, he said. Uncontrollable costs include fuel, medical benefits for employees and utilities, he added.
"It's not like we have this big bucket we can just start handing out," he said.
"With the sales tax package, what a lot of people don't understand is the county intends to provide 50 percent of that to Metro -- not 100 percent," he said. The other half is earmarked for expansion of the system.
"The other thing people forget is sales tax revenues are down," he said. "We're running behind in the city and the county as every other municipality and the state and the federal government are doing. The resources are extremely tight. It's not like we have abundant amounts of money that we can spend just willy-nilly. We're going to have a meeting of the minds about what's really important to the agency and its sustainability."
Baer called passage of the sales tax earlier this year "a beautiful example of the city and the county and the community -- labor, business and university-based groups -- working together.
"Mayor (Richard M.) Daley (of Chicago) pointed out to Dick Fleming (head of the Regional Commerce and Growth Association) that to get a 63 percent vote in the economy we're in was phenomenal. And it didn't just happen. It's because the community realizes how important Metro is to the lives of people."
Baer reminisced on his long years of services and the varied roles he has taken on -- as a member of the St. Louis Police Board, as head of the Metropolitan Sewer District, and helping to create the football stadium.
"If you believe in a region, you can't just talk about it. You've got to step up. I've tried to step up. I hope I've helped."
The scholarship in his name that was announced at Friday's board meeting -- Nations' first -- "means a great deal," he said.
"As I said, I was kind of overwhelmed with the kind comments. I'm not sure I deserve all of them, but I appreciate them. I hope I've earned some of them.
"I'm a great believer in education, and this is a really terrific way to help someone." He said he started a scholarship fund for the children of employees when he was at Unigroup and was a founder of an adult education program in the city.
Baer echoed UMSL Vice Chancellor Martin Leifeld's hope that the scholarship will help keep young talent in St. Louis.
"Like any metropolitan area, we need quality talent. Sometimes St. Louis comes up short on that so maybe this will be of help."
Baer said he is satisfied with the Metro he is handing over to Nations.
"I take great satisfaction in what we've accomplished, but I also realize there's more to do," he said.
He came in with a "mantra" of sorting out problems, correcting them and making sure they don't happen again, he said.
"John Nations will pick up where I'm leaving off and I am confident if he has the staff support and particularly the community support that I had . . . then I think Metro's best days are ahead of us."
He said he expects to be working with Nations until the end of the year. "I want to help as much as I can without getting in the way," he said.
Beyond that, Baer says he wants to spend more time with his family, work in his yard and catch up on his personal reading -- he's on the last of Stieg Larsson's books.
Still, it won't be all play and no work in Baer's future.
Among other things, he'd like to teach a class.
"I enjoy teaching, and I'd like to bring real-life experiences into the classroom instead of just textbook experiences," he said. "I might approach one of the local universities or colleges and, if possible, I'd like to even teach a class here for employees who might want to take a supervisory or management class of some sort. I could relate it to situations here and hopefully give it some real meaning for them."
But he's not shy about saying he hopes to return as a Metro board member.
"I'm still hopeful that I'll get consideration to go on the board at some point," he said.
With two county board members continuing to serve even though their appointments have expired and another county board member's term expiring in November, the chances of getting his wish appear good.
The governor appoints Metro board members upon recommendations from the mayor of St. Louis and the county executive, he said.
Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently on transportation.