For the past few years, through the tenures of three different MTA heads, “net zero” had become a mantra. Without a net-zero labor increase, the MTA’s budget would be deeply in the red with the costs expected to fall on the riders in the form of service cuts, fare hikes or both. As late as February, the MTA warned of steep fare hikes if they couldn’t toe the net-zero line. The Citizens Budget Commission has long since endorsed the approach, and the MTA and TWU were at war.
Then, suddenly, it was election season, and the MTA and TWU were, with the help of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, shaking hands and best buds. Without exacting much in the way of labor reform — and certainly without anything close to net-zero — the MTA gave the TWU a new contract with only a few concessions. The raises — 8 percent over five years — are deserved, and there are some givebacks. But ultimately, the MTA’s labor costs are going to increase by $411 million through 2016. That ain’t net-zero.
In a document released yesterday to bond investors [pdf], the MTA offered the public its first glimpse at the ramifications of the deal. The Memorandum of Understanding won’t be released until after the TWU votes on it, and such a vote isn’t likely until after next week’s MTA Board meeting. So what we know is that the MTA is on the hook for a lot of money. The deal includes retroactive payments of $126 million and a current bump in labor expenses of around $55 million. In 2015 and 2016, the MTA expects to spend $116 million and $114 million respectively, though some experts — notably Nicole Gelinas — believes these estimates to be low.
To cover some of the costs, the new deal includes an increase in the amount of employee contributions to health and other benefits as well as a new “wage progression schedule.” Still, someone has to come up with $411 million, and MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast insists it won’t fail to the fare paying public this time around. So how is the MTA going to pay? Read it (and weep):
MTA anticipates that the onetime payment for retroactive wages in 2014 will be funded from monies derived from released 2013 general reserves budgeted for voluntary deposits to the MTA Long Island Rail Road Plan for Additional Pensions that would have reduced the unfunded liability and future expenses. Increases in current year and annual ongoing costs are anticipated to be paid from funds budgeted for voluntary deposits to the MTA Long Island Rail Road Plan for Additional Pensions, and a portion of monies earmarked for voluntary deposit into the OPEB trust for future retiree healthcare costs.
It gets better. If other unions that do not have contracts in place sign similar deals, the MTA would have to find another $300 million. This money, the agency says, will come from voluntary deposits into the OPEB trust and a reduction of PAYGO capital funds of approximately $70 million. To say this doesn’t fall on the riders is sleight of hand accounting. In fact, this entire budget is sleight hand accounting.
But now we know: The MTA is robbing future riders to pay for the present. It doesn’t bother Cuomo because he’ll be gone from Albany before the bill comes due, but for the rest of us, this isn’t a good deal. We may not pay now because the MTA will keep those looming fare hikes low, but give it a few years. We the riders will be paying then or else the system will suffer.