YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: The state Assembly on Thursday approved a bill package aimed at making the Port Authority more accountable — by, in part, axing personal lines of credit, mortgage subsidies, concert tickets and other perks. Authority commissioners and employees would also have to start paying tolls.
The bills were sparked by a series of media reports about how the multi-billion dollar agency conducts its business.
Its sponsors cited concerns over overtime costs that topped $90 million; contradicting statements about where the majority of the money raised by the agency’s September toll hike was being spent; “borderline-ridiculous” perks for authority members; a series of what the Democrats called patronage hires by Gov. Christie — and, of course, the increasing amounts people are being forced to pay to cross the Hudson River.
The first measure – sponsored by Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Connie Wagner, Ruben J. Ramos, Jr. and John S. Wisniewski – implements reforms aimed at transparency and accountability:
•Open public meetings;
•Publication of authority commissioners’ meeting minutes;
•Public hearings in the specific districts affected to discuss any cost hikes — tolls, fares, fees, etc.;
•Creating state audit, finance and governance committees;
•Financial disclosures and training for commissioners, along with a fidiciary responsibility.
The state Senate already approved the same bill unanimously. It now goes to Christie, who must sign it for the measure to become law.
Deputy Speaker John S. Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) said the moves are necessary to stop the authority from being run “like a private country club.”
“It seems apparent that a legislative intervention on behalf of taxpayers and commuters is necessary,” said Wisniewski, the chairman of the Assembly transportation panel.
“It is simply no longer acceptable for the Port Authority to continue to conduct its business behind closed doors,” Wagner said. “New Jersey taxpayers and commuters deserve to know precisely how their toll and tax dollars are being spent.”
“With at least 55 percent of Port Authority bridge and tunnel tolls and 80 percent of PATH fares paid by New Jersey residents, we have a vested interest,” Vainieri Huttle added.
The Senate has yet to vote on the second bill, which would require the tax-exempt authority to pay municipalities for properties it owns in New Jersey equal to what the taxes would be, in an attempt to mitigate the revenue loss.
The bill contains a hold-harmless provision that would allow any current or future negotiated payment amounts in excess of the bill’s minimums to continue unabated.
“We’ve had conflicting reports about what the Port Authority has been doing with its extra revenue since raising PATH fares by almost 14.5 percent,” said Ramos (D-Hudson), a member of the Assembly transportation panel. “Since the authority can’t seem to tell us what, if anything, the extra money is going to, it should be used to reimburse towns for their lost property tax revenue.”
“If the Port Authority can afford to pay $90 million a year in overtime and waive toll payments for present and former commissioners, then it stands to reason that it can afford to pay New Jersey municipalities for the use of their land,” Wagner added.
Due to the bi-state nature of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New York would have to enact identical legislation in order for any of these measures to take effect.
New York State Senator Andrew Lanza has been working that end.
Authority officials have been downplaying the moves, saying that they are auditing their books for both governors.
However, Vainieri Huttle said both states needs to strip the agency of many of its quasi-public privileges because it “bears a tremendous amount of responsibility and has the ability to significantly impact the lives of thousands of commuters every day.”
It “can mean the difference between whether a job is even affordable for a person to commute to anymore,” she said.
The law approved by both houses of the state Legislature would require, in part, that financial reports by the Port Authority board’s chair and vice-chair, along with the executive director, deputy executive director and chief financial officer of the authority. This holds them each accountable, the lawmakers said.
The bill also restricts perks and benefits for the authority and its subsidiary corporations, as well as the commissioners. For one thing, it would require authority commissioners and employees to pay tolls when they’re not on the clock.
The measure also prohibits commissioners, officers or employees from having a driver for anything other than official business, unless the driver is a law enforcement officer on a security detail.
And it bans those same people from obtaining a personal line of credit or use of a credit card from the authority unless it is “directly related and essential to the performance” of their duties.
The bill whacks out personal expense accounts that aren’t approved by the new law or specifically funded by the legislatures in both states, removes any “allowance, stipend, subsidy or other form of payment for the purchase, lease or maintenance of a residence,” and restricts tuition reimbursements to specifically job-related courses, while capping the amount at 50 percent.
The bill also would prohibit commissioners, officer and employees of the Port Authority or its subsidiary corporations from:
Soliciting or accepting any compensation, reward, employment, gift, honorarium, out-of-state travel or personal expense that could be considered a tacit bribe. That includes tickets to concerts and sporting events — unless those same tickets are equally available to the public;
Taking a job with any company that does business with the authority for two years after leaving;
Using a residence owned by the authority or subsidiary for anyting other than official business.
“Any commissioner, officer or employee of the authority or its subsidiaries who willfully engages in conduct, or accepts a benefit, in violation of the provisions of the measure would be subject to removal from office or employment and fined up to $10,000.”
The measure also requires that Port Authority minutes be subject to review and approval by the legislatures of New York and New Jersey. This would create the kind of veto power that the governor exercises over state boards and authorities.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which turns 100 this year, operates not only bridges and tunnels (except for those run by similar agencies) but the PATH, the big bus terminal in midtown Manhattan, and airports and seaports in both states. That includes the massive Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, one of the country’s – if not the world’s – largest and busiest.
It isn’t a public agency with the power to tax. It doesn’t receive funding from local or state governments. Its revenue comes from everyday people – through tolls, fees, rents and the operation of various facilities. Still, it essentially is run like a private business, but with tax-exempt debt capacity associated with government agencies.
NJ Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, NY State Sen. Andrew Lanza
It can allocate money however and wherever it wants, free from public or legislative scrutiny.
At the moment, the only two people who hold any power over the authority are the governors of New York and New Jersey. Each one, with the approval of his or her state Senate, appoints six members to the Board of Commissioners, who serve voluntary, overlapping six-year terms “at the pleasure” of their benefactor.
Christie has the ability to veto any action taken by the New Jersey commissioners, nullifying their votes, but not by Cuomo’s appointees, and vice versa.
Quasi-public bodies were first created nearly a century ago, with the authority to dictate their own terms – no matter the public sentiment or price – and answerable only to their respective governors.
Peak tolls have jumped to $9.50 for E-ZPass users and $12 for cash customers on the authority’s six bistate bridges and tunnels, from $8.
The figures are going to keep rising, to $12.50 and $15 for E-ZPass and cash users.
The authority says the boosts are necessary to help fund a $25 billion capital plan, including redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.
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