Home MTA Politics Is MTA transparency a legitimate campaign issue?

Is MTA transparency a legitimate campaign issue?

by Benjamin Kabak

Once upon a time, Alan Hevesi, then the comptroller of New York State, fired a complaint at the MTA that the agency had been maintaining two sets of books. Claiming that the MTA hid $500 million in order to justify a fare hike, Hevesi leveled this charge at a time public sentiment toward the MTA was at a low, and it stuck. The MTA’s bookkeeping had been sloppy, but not illegally so. A judge eventually found no wrong-doing or evidence to back Hevesi’s claim, and the comptroller himself wound up in jail for his own fiscal improprieties.

Still, the idea that the MTA has two sets of books has been an enduring and popular myth. The public can easily latch onto it because they don’t feel the MTA is own their side, and politicians use it to curry favor with disgruntled voters. It came up in both 2009 and 2010, and now that a potential mayoral candidate is riding the coattails of his time with the MTA, in essence, it is resurfacing again this year.

The latest issue comes from — you guessed it — Staten Island, and it involves Senator Andrew Lanza and Representative Nicole Malliotakis. When we last ran across these two, they had recently been railing against better bus service after bemoaning the lack of transit options for Staten Islanders. Malliotakis seemed awfully concerned with a theoretical group of senior citizen drivers who would find themselves in bus lanes and panic over receiving a ticket.

Anyway, after Joe Lhota last week in a debate called the MTA “most transparent governmental organization,” Lanza and Malliotakis responded in turn. Judy Randall from the Staten Island Advance has the story:

The two lawmakers are backing Lhota rival John Catsimatidis, who didn’t appear to take umbrage at the comment during the debate, but joined them in denouncing it in a joint statement. “When I think of the MTA, many descriptions pop into my head,” Catsimatidis said. “Transparent is not one of them.”

“Joe Lhota’s statement defending the MTA is a gross untruth,” said Lanza (R-Staten Island), adding that the agency fought to defeat legislation he authored which would have required it to undergo an independent audit. “That action alone certainly undermines Joe Lhota’s laughable claim that the MTA is the most transparent agency in the USA.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Malliotakis (R-East Shore/Brooklyn) took exception with the agency’s finances. “The MTA has a $250 million surplus from the tolls it collects from the bridge,” she said. “Under Lhota’s watch, the MTA reached a debt of $40 billion. I, for one, would like to know where that money is being spent.”

Lhota responed with a statement concerning his desire to remove the MTA bridges from state control, but put that zany idea aside for now. The real issue is one of accountability and transparency. The MTA is very transparent. It posts all of its budget materials and board materials on its website as soon as these materials are available for public consumption, and anyone with a little bit of time, energy and focus can wade through them to develop a picture of the MTA’s finances. If Malliotakis, for one, would like to know where the money is being spent, she should just look for herself.

The real issue — and it’s always an issue politicians are loath to explore — concerns not how the MTA spends money but how much they’re spending and on what. It’s great the MTA has become so transparent in light of where they used to be with budget information; it’s no so great that so much money is tied up in debt payments and pension and benefits obligations. It’s shocking that the MTA is spending nearly a $1 billion per new station for the Second Ave. Subway and is constructing the world’s most expensive transit projects the city over.

At a certain point, someone in Albany has to take some responsibility for understanding and appreciating the fiscal mess the MTA has found itself in. It’s not a mess the agency is trying to hide, and it’s one out there for everyone to see without the need to subpoena, FOIA or forensically audit the agency. It’s under our noses, but our politicians would rather take pot shots at the agency than attempt to solve the problems. That’s not government at its finest.

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Bolwerk July 15, 2013 - 12:26 am

I always figured NYS should just centralize all pensions in one agency, and have one set of standards that applies to all public employees. I mean, if we want transparency and lack of confusion.

Of course, the pension should be a defined contribution. Still, there really is a fundamental absurdity of a transit agency managing pensions, but that’s arguably the MTA’s main job. 😐

Sharon July 15, 2013 - 11:38 am

If pensions were all under one agency, then it would limit the amount of bribes that the politicians could earn. The local politicians makes most of his income on bribes not the state and city salaries.

The only reason these two representatives support Catsimatidis is because of the campaign cash he must have promised in return forth thier support. They can’t actually think this guy has a legitimate shot to win. He is the worst manorial candidate thisnsudemof all sharpton that I can possible imagine .

Nyc politics is so corrupt, and people fall for the same distraction issues such as blame the mta. It is so sad.

The mta is not a well run organization by high quality coorporate America standards, but the service provided is excellent ( hard to say but true)

Larry Littlefield July 15, 2013 - 8:26 am

Hevesi was right about the incorrectness of the MTA’s books, but wrong about the direction. The MTA was and has continued to be borrowing for operating costs, calling the future of the metro area transit system and economy into question.

But that’s not what Generation Greed wants to hear. The issue is generational equity and Generation Greed. That is the issue there is a unified attempt to surppress and cover up.

Sharon July 15, 2013 - 11:50 am

This generation is the victim of believing the fastest talker. Social media makes it worse. There is a large group of activists who have learned the time honored arts of the advertising industry and are using social media and our general media( who through budget cuts do not actually investigate what they report but rather repeat what others say) to pursued the public on issues most of the time the wrong way.

The mta is caught in the middle of this. Powerful labor unions in the construction trade and in operations hold too much power greatly elevating costs . This will never Change. All the subsidies and taxes tolls and fees are driving the working and middle class into poverty.

The main reason I am for less government operations such as health care, transit, schools etc is because as a 15 year city employee I have seen how the good of the public is the last thing every new regulation that is placed on these government services is meant for. The new regulations is meant of some special interest group. They special interest groups and politicians have mastered the art of hyping the benefit and masking how the new rule benefits them more than anyone else.

A perfect example is the cuomo’s reform of Medicaid sponsored nursing Homes. He reduced the amount of money spent and who is eligible claiming that treatment in the home is far more economical. The truth is that the in home option created a new senior day care industry that is paying seniors with gift cards to show up and the operators are getting obscene amounts of money’s for each person that shows up for one min.

Larry Littlefield July 15, 2013 - 1:38 pm

I’m not sure the problem is younger generations believing propaganda, so much as not bothering to pay attention all together.

As was the case for my geneation, the one immediately after Generation Greed, Generation Apathy.

SEAN July 15, 2013 - 10:41 am

Is MTA transparency a legitimate campaign issue?
Well, I think the answer to that one is obvious. Alls fare in love & politics.

alen July 15, 2013 - 10:47 am

if you show any money coming into the system the unions will suck it up and there will never be money for improvements.

so you take on debt and make it seem like you are always bankrupt

Bolwerk July 15, 2013 - 11:40 am

Meh, expenditure for capital improvements is still labor-intensive. All the borrowing accomplishes is making sure bankers get a cut of what could actually go toward productive work.

The MTA mis-utilizes labor, of course, and that is one of the great failings of the Giuliani-Pataki-Cuomo-Bloomberg era.

Sharon July 15, 2013 - 11:57 am

The unions rules makes sure that the money is mis spent.

Lets not play the blame the bankers game. They provide a needed service that allows projects to get done.mthe interest paid on these bonds do not go to the bandsman it to every day people and union and private pensions and 401k .the mta should be able to generate enough money to pay off the bonds early.

The problem is when there is a surplus as there will be this year and the next few years, 80% by law should go into early repayment of the bonds saving tax payers and riders money. this would provide lower operating costs when the amount of mortgage issuances (2% mortgage recording tax) slows down .

That’s just common sense. No happening because it make no politician money . Does not make the unions happy no the more transit at any cost activists happy, no one

Sharon July 15, 2013 - 12:00 pm

By the way this is same way privates construction gets done.

What really have to ask is why does a union trade worker that lives in nj get paid 30% than on nj projects more just because the construction project is in nyc.the reason the trade union gives is it cost more to live in nyc,

I can understand for high end condo projects on the upper east side but on public works projects?

This makes it harder for the working class person to live and prosper.

Larry Littlefield July 15, 2013 - 1:39 pm

As in the public sector, I believe the union workers now on the job are being squeezed, in NY and NJ.

Those who made out took their retroactive pension increases and left for Florida, leaving someone to pay more to make up for the hole in the pension fund.

Bolwerk July 15, 2013 - 12:22 pm

Jesus, I understand sometimes people make mistakes, but can you please try to read and write more coherently? Who said anything about blame? Certainly not me.

And if that’s “common sense,” it just goes to show how stupid common “sense” really is. Managerial finance is way more complicated than just paying bonds off early to satisfy reactionary debt scolds. Sometimes the return on spending money today can prevent even bigger costs in the future.

Stu Sutcliffe July 15, 2013 - 2:50 pm

I wonder if Lanza, Savino, Malliotakis and Company read this website, and if they’ve ever had the urge to respond. I’d bet against their having the urge. What could they say, except to go with the same talking points?

Benjamin Kabak July 15, 2013 - 2:53 pm

I’ve engaged with Malliotakis on Twitter before concerning her concerns with bus lane enforcement, and she just resorted to less plausible situations and scenarios.

Stu Sutcliffe July 15, 2013 - 3:03 pm

Somehow, I don’t find that to be surprising, given the tone of their rhetoric until this point.


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