Eve Kessler

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s payroll ballooned by $150 million last year — a bad look when the agency is asking the federal government for $3 billion to fund its capital programs, including the little-loved $2-billion LaGuardia AirTrain.

According to the Empire Center, a conservative-leaning fiscal watchdog, the agency grew its payroll by an eye-popping 18 percent last year — to $997 million from $845 million — and driving average pay for its 8,721 employees to $114,391. Long known as a patronage mill, the agency tends to reward projects favored by Gov. Cuomo’s donors, especially those involved with the LaGuardia rebuild.

“Dollar for dollar, the Port Authority probably has the fattest public payroll in the New York metro area, which is really saying something,” said Empire Center Research Director E.J. McMahon. “Before the Port Authority gets a dime of federal bailout money, it should be required to eliminate all but the most essential planning and operational positions and impose an across-the-board pay freeze, effective immediately.”

The agency, which runs the local airports, bridges and tunnels, the cross-Hudson PATH trains, and bus terminals, usually funds itself through tolls and passenger-facility fees — that is, it makes its money from encouraging driving and air travel. The need for a bailout comes because of “enormous revenue declines” and a “collapse in traveller volume” owing to the coronavirus pandemic, as Executive Director Rick Cotton and Chairman Kevin O’Toole wrote to lawmakers earlier this month.

The Empire Center claimed that the Port Authority is paying exorbitant amounts in salary and overtime, in particular, to its police, who are its highest-paid group of employees:

  • The Port Authority police officials earned an average of $144,929;
  • Seventy-one percent of police department employees made six-figure salaries and 124 were paid at least $100,000 in overtime.
  • Total overtime Port Authority police payments grew $14 million from 2018, to $74 million.
  • Executive Director Cotton made $279,531, but that hardly made him the top-paid employee; that distinction went to Regina Womack, a police sergeant, whose pay of $423,467 included $259,717 in overtime on top of a base salary of $136,000.

But the gravy train did not end with the security force:

  • More than 55 percent of employees were paid six-figure salaries last year.
  • The number of employees who were paid more than $200,000 more than doubled, to 688 from 243.
  • Four employees were paid more than $300,000.
  • The Port Authority paid out more than $30 million in overtime and another $18 million in extra pay.

The Port Authority said that last year’s increase in compensation was 2 percent of its total 2019 budget.

“In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Port Authority has dramatically cut back services at the airport, reduced operations at PATH, moved to all electronic tolling and in total made over $200 million in immediate cuts and reductions,” said spokeswoman Lindsay Kryzak. “The agency has consolidated operational footprints across its facilities, including the closure of more than 100 gates as well as some concourses and terminals at its airports.

She added: “These compensation increases were heavily driven by an increase in overtime costs primarily required to support the intense need for traffic management at LaGuardia Airport during the peak of construction.”

The Port Authority’s quest for a bailout got a boost yesterday from Gov. Cuomo, who was in Washington, D.C., asking President Trump for a coronavirus-stimulus infrastructure spending package, including for the AirTrain and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Second Avenue Subway. Cuomo indicated that some of the projects were shovel-ready and could be accelerated.

“If [Trump] gives us the green light, this is not going to be years of discussion,” he said Wednesday at his daily briefing, adding, “We’ll talk next week.”

© 2020 Streetsblog NYC

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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.