SOUTH VENICE — Sarasota County commissioners turned their backs on the potential privatization of the county’s bus system following a two-hour discussion Tuesday afternoon, but the topic is far from dead.

By a unanimous vote, commissioners opted to hire a technical adviser, one of four options they had under consideration Tuesday, to guide them through their continuing options regarding Sarasota County Area Transit.

The discussion Tuesday came after county staff went through a request for proposals process that ended last December and resulted in the winning bid from Transdev of Lombard, Ill.

That company has long been interested in taking over the county’s bus service, initially offering an unsolicited bid two years ago.

County officials never acted upon the proposal at the time as it was outside of the county’s procurement process.

Telling commissioners that SCAT was “not a sustainable structure,” Transdev Vice President W.C. Pihl promised that fears voiced by SCAT employees were unfounded and that their jobs were safe.

“Privatization won’t harm the passengers and the employees. Things instead will get better,” Pihl said.

He was one of approximately 16 people who took to the podium to address commissioners about the controversial issue.

Many of those speakers were members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1701 that represents SCAT employees.

“You’ve got a company whose performance in key areas falls short of what’s promised,” said Don Turner, the ATU president. “The employees and the riding public are the ones who will suffer first.”

Anna Smith, a Venice resident who occasionally rides the bus to her job in Englewood, provided commissioners with a rider’s perspective on the issue.

“This will result in reduced efficiencies for riders and employees,” Smith said. “Transit is a public utility and should be treated as such. This will cost taxpayers in the long run with lower service.”

Driving the discussions about SCAT’s future that have occurred over the last two years is the system’s impact on the county’s general fund, and the changing role of public transit due to technological changes.

With a $30 million budget, SCAT is the second-highest department drawing on the county’s general fund, surpassing Parks and Recreation. Only the sheriff’s office receives more funding from the general fund, which is dependent upon the collection of property taxes.

According to county estimates that became available Tuesday morning, had commissioners chosen to pursue negotiations with Transdev, the savings would have been about $1 million in the first year, and would not get much higher over the life of the proposed five-year deal.

“One million dollars is not a lot of savings to disrupt the whole system,” Commission Chairman Charles Hines said before commissioners voted.

Commissioners ended the discussion without a decision on the timetable to hire a technical adviser, nor a decision on when further workshops may occur.

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