Comptroller warns of financial distress at the MTA, and the MTA goes on a hiring spree

 politico.com  09/13/2019 18:41:57   DANA RUBINSTEIN
People walk by a subway station in New York City. | Getty

One day after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority confirmed it was planning to greatly expand the size of its police force, the state comptroller painted a picture of an agency unable to take on new burdens, particularly in the face of a possible recession.

If the MTA, with all of its existing financial needs, fails to transform itself into a leaner, meaner transit machine, the consequences could be felt for years to come, and riders could face reduced services, unplanned fare hikes, and deterioration of the system, said Comptroller Tom DiNapoli in a statement.

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DiNapolis assessment of dire out-year budget deficits and staggering debt burdens echoes the MTAs own assessment of its financial situation. Leaders there have been warning of possible service cuts and layoffs even as they plan to hire a small army of new officers, an endeavor that will cost a significant, but undisclosed amount of money.

We appreciate the comptroller validating the dire financial condition the MTA has been talking about for months, said MTA spokesperson Tim Minton.

The MTAs insistence on its financial fragility is why its decision to move forward with the hiring of 500 new police officers, first reported by WNYC, strikes some budget analysts as confusing. The expansion is quite a large one. Right now, the MTA employs 783 police officers.

Adding spending to something thats already in the hole makes it worse, said Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission.

The MTA has yet to announce how much its police hiring spree will cost.

According to Ken Girardin, a labor analyst at the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, every new police officer will cost the MTA roughly $56,000, which means the new personnel would initially cost the MTA roughly $28 million a year.

Those costs should rapidly increase over time, as police salaries rapidly increase.

"Within 7 years, the base pay hits $88,000, Girardin said.

Rein, of the Citizens Budget Commission, also predicted a big financial hit.

Our best preliminary estimate is that an additional 500 officers over the [financial] plan would add cumulatively $200 million, which would add to the shortfall, bringing it closer to $1 billion over the four years.

The MTA plans to partially pay for the new police officers using the $40 million Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance promised the authority in June. The MTA argues that the new police officers, with their brief to combat fare evasion, could almost end up paying for themselves with the new fare revenue they bring in.

The MTA estimates it loses more than $200 million a year to fare evasion.

The authority's decision to increase the size of its police force comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who effectively controls the MTA, focuses on what he calls quality of life concerns on the subway. By his definition, quality of life issues include increased homelessness, fare evasion, assaults on workers and aggressive panhandling.

You hear all the time, riders say, 'Doors opened, I went to go on the car, the smell was so terrible and there was garbage,'" Cuomo said Tuesday. "'A homeless person had left stuff in the car and I couldn't get in the car.' Those type of issues are increasing."

To budget watchdogs, however, its not clear that the MTA has the financial capacity to take on the new burden.

As the comptrollers report noted Friday, The MTAs latest financial plan shows budget gaps that grow from $392 million in 2020 to nearly $1.6 billion in 2023.

The subways are experiencing the highest on-time performance in more than six years and every other major key performance indicator shows year-over-year improvement, Minton said. We are moving forward on multiple fronts to ensure a better environment for our customers.

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