Bills Would Increase Municipal Revenues, Enhance Accountability, Place Restrictions on Employee Perks & Provide Legislative Oversight of Multi-Billion Dollar Bi-State Agency
(TRENTON) — A legislative package aimed at enhancing legislative oversight and public transparency at the New York/New Jersey Port Authority (Port Authority) was released Thursday from the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee.
A series of increasingly alarming news reports in recent months have drawn sharp criticisms about how the multi-billion dollar agency conducts its business. Concerns have been raised over overtime costs in excess of $90 million; contradicting statements about where the majority of the money raised by the agency’s September toll hike was being spent; $4 million in Christie administration patronage hires; and borderline-ridiculous levels of perks for authority members and retirees.
“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), the chairman of the Assembly transportation panel. “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.”
The first bill in the package (A-699) would require the Port Authority, a tax exempt entity, to make payments to municipalities on properties it owns in New Jersey in the amount that would have otherwise been paid in property taxes on those properties. The bi-state agency owns properties in 15 counties in New York and New Jersey and, according to the sponsors — Assembly members Ruben J. Ramos, Jr., and Connie Wagner — the measure would attempt to mitigate the loss of tax revenue faced by towns where the Port Authority owns property.
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 have 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,” said Wagner (D-Bergen).
The second bill (A-1011) — sponsored by Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Wagner and Ramos — entitled the “Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Transparency and Accountability Act,” would implement reforms at the bi-state agency to ensure that it operates as an open, transparent, and accountable authority.
“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,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “Recent news stories indicate that this is not the case, something this legislation seeks to rectify.”
“It is simply no longer acceptable for the Port Authority to continue to conduct its business behind closed doors,” said Wagner. “New Jersey taxpayers and commuters deserve to know precisely how their toll and tax dollars are being spent.”
“This is an agency that annually spends billions of dollars in taxpayer money,” said Ramos. “The New Jersey taxpayers and commuters who provide this funding have a right to know that their money is being spent on projects and salaries that are appropriate and fiscally sound.”
Specifically, the act would create requirements for:
- An independent auditing of the Port Authority;
- Open public meetings and the publication of minutes of the meetings of the authority’s Board of Commissioners;
- Public hearings to be held in the port district of New York and New Jersey to discuss any proposed fee, toll, charge or fare increase;
- The establishment of audit, finance and governance committees;
- Financial disclosures and training for commissioners;
- Financial reports certified by the chair and vice-chair of the board of Commissioners of the Port Authority and the executive director, deputy executive director and chief financial officer of the authority; and
- The creation of a fiduciary responsibility for commissioners.
The third bill (A-1247), sponsored by Assemblymen Paul D. Moriarty and Matthew W. Milam, would impose various restrictions on perks and benefits for the Port Authority, its subsidiary corporations and the commissioners, officers and employees of same.
“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 Moriarty (D-Gloucester). “That simply isn’t fair and it needs to stop.”
“The commissioners and employees of the Port Authority are charged with the responsibility of spending billions of our tax dollars each year on a variety of projects,” said Milam (D-Cumberland). “Because of the scope of their responsibility to the taxpayers, they should be held to the same standards of behaviors as public officials.”
The bill would prohibit the Port Authority and its subsidiaries from:
- Compensating any commissioner, officer or employee for expenses related to commuting or a personal vehicle;
- Exempting any commissioner, officer or employee, or former commissioner, officer or employee from payment of any Port Authority tolls or fares or reimbursing any such individual for use of any of any Port Authority tolled facilities or transportation services or for payment of any other expense for commuting between home and work or for travel not directly related to the public business of the authority;
- Providing to any commissioner, officer or employee a driver whose assigned full-time or part-time duties are to operate any motor vehicle in which the commissioner, officer or employee, or an immediate family member is a passenger, unless the drive is a law enforcement officer who is assigned also to provide for the security of the commissioner, officer or employee when the need for such security has been documented;
- Compensating any commissioner, officer, or employee for overnight travel on behalf of the authority or for purposes of conducting authority business unless such travel arrangements and itinerary are approved in writing by the authority board at a public meeting, excepting emergent situations relating to the authority’s business;
- Extending to any commissioner, officer or employee a personal line of credit or any other form of credit agreement for any purpose unless the use of such credit card is directly related and essential to the performance of those official duties of the commissioner, officer or employee, as documented in writing, that concern the maintenance of security for specified persons or property, law enforcement, inspections or audits of regulated facilities, entities or persons or the health, safety and welfare of members of the public;
- Providing to any commissioner, officer or employee any personal expense allowance or contingent fund for personal or official expenses except where such allowance or fund is expressly provided for by stature or legislative appropriation;
- Providing to any commissioner, officer or employee an allowance, stipend, subsidy or other form of payment for the purchase, lease or maintenance of a residence; and
- Providing tuition reimbursement to officers and employees unless:
- The course is taken at an accredited public institution of higher learning in New York or New Jersey;
- The course is directly related to the skills and knowledge required for the duties being performed by the officer or employee or required for the performance of the duties of a position to which the officer or employee may directly be promoted form the current position;
- The officer or employee agrees to remain an officer or employee for five years after the final tuition reimbursement is made; and
- Total tuition reimbursement is not to exceed 50 percent of the total tuition.
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 subsistence expense or any other thing of value from any source other than the authority for any matter related to the official duties of the commissioner, officer or employee or under any other circumstance which could reasonably be expected to influence the manner in which authority business is conducted;
- Engaging in employment with any professional service provider, vendor or independent contractor of the authority for two years after termination;
- Accepting use of a Port Authority or Port Authority subsidiary-owned resident for purposes not directly related and essential to the performance of those official duties of the officer or employee; and
- Soliciting, receiving or agreeing to receive, whether directly or indirectly, any ticket or other form of admission to any place of entertainment that is provided free of charge or at a discounted rate by the sponsor, promoter, performer or operator of the event or entertainment venue unless the same free or reduced admission is available to:
- The public;
- A class consisting of all officers or employees of New York or New Jersey state agencies, as appropriate, whether or not restricted on the basis of geographic consideration;
- All members of a group or class in which membership is unrelated to Port Authority service;
- All members of an organization, such as an employees’ association or state or other public entity credit union, in which membership is related to Port Authority service; or
- A group or class that is not defined in a manner that specifically discriminates among state or Port Authority officers or employees on the basis of branch of government or type of responsibility, or on a basis that favors those of higher rank or rate of pay.
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 (A-2166), sponsored by Wisniewski, would require that Port Authority minutes be subject to review and approval by the legislatures of New York and New Jersey.
“While Gov. Christie has shown no problem in exercising his gubernatorial veto power over other authorities, he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the Port Authority,” said Wisniewski. “Adding a layer of legislative oversight will help remedy that and ensure that billions in public dollars are being spent appropriately.”
Under the bill, either legislature, by concurrent resolution, may disapprove the minutes within 10 business days of receipt. If neither legislature acts within the prescribed period, the minutes shall be deemed approved, subject to the governors’ veto.
The bill package now heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further review.
Due to the bi-state nature of the Port Authority, in order for any of these measures to take effect, New York would have to pass and enact identical legislation.