Bills Would Increase Municipal Revenues & Enhance Accountability at Multi-Billion Dollar Bi-State Agency
(TRENTON) – An Assembly Democratic bill package aimed at enhancing legislative oversight and public transparency at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (Port Authority) was approved Thursday by the full Assembly.
The bills were inspired by a series of increasingly alarming news reports in recent months, which have prompted 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.
The first bill (A-1011) – sponsored by Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Connie Wagner, Ruben J. Ramos, Jr. and John S. Wisniewski – entitled the “PANYNJ 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.”
“This is a public agency with a larger budget than most states, yet it’s run behind closed doors like a private country club,” said Wisniewski. “It’s time the agency learned that those days are over.”
Specifically the act would create specific 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 second bill (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.
“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 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,” said Wagner (D-Bergen).
Bill A-1011 received final legislative approval and now heads to the governor’s desk. It was approved 61-0-18 Thursday by the full Assembly and 29-0 by the full Senate back in March.
Bill A-699 was approved 48-28-2 by the Assembly and now awaits further action from the Senate.
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 enact identical legislation.