CVP FIRST: An Assembly panel today forwarded a bill package aimed at making the Port Authority more accountable — by, in part, axing perks such as personal lines of credit, mortgage subsidies and concert tickets. Authority commissioners, officers and employees would also have to start paying tolls.
“We essentially have an agency funded by tolls and taxpayer dollars more or less operating with no outside oversight,” said Deputy Speaker John S. Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly transportation panel, which released the package today.
“In light of the litany of disturbing news reports about the agency’s operations, it seems apparent that a legislative intervention on behalf of taxpayers and commuters is necessary,” he said.
He 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; perks for authority members; a series of what the Democrats called patronage hires by Governor Christie — and, of course, the increasing amounts people are being forced to pay to cross the Hudson River.
New York’s Legislature would have to adopt a similar bill in order for the reforms to kick in — far from a certainty. New York State Senator Andrew Lanza has been working that end.
Authority officials downplayed the moves, saying that they are preparing a preliminary audit requested by both governors.
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,”
Assembly member Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) said.
It “can mean the difference between whether a job is even affordable for a person to commute to anymore,” she said.
The first bill in the New Jersey Assembly package would require the tax-exempt agency to make payments in lieu of taxes to municipalities on properties it owns in New Jersey. Any previously negotiated payments would be grandfathered in.
“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,” said Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen).
The second bill – sponsored by Vainieri Huttle, Wagner and Ramos – includes several reforms aimed at creating more transparency and accountability, particularly when it comes to how much toll money and taxes go where.
“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 in seeing our hard-earned commuting money being properly spent,” Vainieri Huttle said.
The requirements of the proposed law include:
• 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.
In tandem with that, the law would require that financial reports by the 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 third bill 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.
“At the same time that the average commuter is paying thousands of dollars a year to cross Port Authority-owned bridges and tunnels, you have commissioners and employees of the agency literally getting a free ride because of where they work,” said Assemblyman Paul D. Moriarty (D-Gloucester). “That simply isn’t fair and it needs to stop.”
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 final measure 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 bill package now heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further review.
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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