New Jersey toll-road managers to slash employee perks

Cars at the toll booths on the N.J. Turnpike in East Brunswick. Funds from the higher tolls will finance widening sections of the turnpike and parkway, among other projects.
Cars at the toll booths on the N.J. Turnpike in East Brunswick. Funds from the higher tolls will finance widening sections of the turnpike and parkway, among other projects.
Posted: October 20, 2010

New Jersey toll-road managers said they would eliminate perks, bonuses, payouts, and free employee E-ZPass trips after an audit released Tuesday found the New Jersey Turnpike Authority had wasted about $50 million since 2007.

The moves at the Turnpike Authority - which operates the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway - and the South Jersey Transportation Authority - which operates the Atlantic City Expressway - are the latest in the Christie administration's efforts to slash spending at the state's independent authorities.

The audit of the Turnpike Authority said the agency squandered tens of millions of dollars on bonuses, sick-leave and vacation payouts, free rides for employees, a poorly managed health-care plan, and overpayments to outside lawyers.

"While tolls are going up, the Turnpike Authority is overpaying its employees, overpaying its management, overpaying for its health plan, and overpaying for legal services," A. Matthew Boxer, the independent state comptroller, said in a statement.

Tolls increased on the roads in 2008 and are scheduled to go up again in 2012.

The president of the toll collectors union said Boxer had unfairly maligned workers, whose benefits were negotiated.

"For them to say we're overpaid and not entitled to a middle-class life is just wrong," said Fran Ehret, president of International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 194. "We kind of take umbrage at that."

"We collect the tolls, we plow the snow, we fix all the electronics, and all we're looking for is a middle-class life," Ehret said. "We're not asking for anything that we haven't negotiated with the turnpike."

She said the union, one of 10 that represents toll-road workers, would fight any effort to take away workers' benefits.

Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, who serves as chairman of the Turnpike Authority, said the agency would take "critical and long-overdue steps to end waste at the turnpike authority."

The moves will include elimination of:

Free commutes for employees.

An account that funded employee bowling leagues and scholarships.

Annual payouts for managers' unused vacation and sick time.

"Longevity bonuses" for nonunion employees.

Sick-leave, vacation, longevity, birthday, holiday, snow-removal, and other bonuses for 2,700 union employees as current labor contracts expire in 2011.

The Turnpike Authority, which has 10 in-house attorneys, will rein in spending for outside lawyers, which cost the agency $7 million last year.

The agency said it also would review its salary structure, "with the goal of bringing Turnpike Authority compensation into line" with other government salaries.

The executive director of the authority collected $181,035 last year, more than Gov. Christie's $175,000 annual salary. Four other top managers earned more than the $141,000 salary earned by Christie's cabinet chiefs.

In a related move, the South Jersey Transportation Authority Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to eliminate toll-free commutes for its employees and annual payouts for unused vacation and sick time.

The audit of the Turnpike Authority released Tuesday said about $30 million in bonuses was paid to employees and managers in 2008 and 2009 without consideration of performance.

About $3.8 million was paid to employees for unused sick days and vacation days in the same period.

Free E-ZPass transponders for employees of the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway cost the agency about $430,000 a year in lost tolls, said auditors.

And the agency overspent by $12.8 million for health-care benefits by using a private carrier instead of a state-run program from 2007 to 2010, the audit said.

The audit also found public toll dollars were used to establish an "employee relations account" to pay for such things as an employee bowling league ($12,000) and scholarships for employees' children ($89,000), and to cover costs for an event none of the employees attended ($10,000).

The authority overpaid $224,168 for legal fees, the audit said. About $163,000 of the overbillings came from one law firm, DeCotis, FitzPatrick & Cole, headquartered in Teaneck.

The Turnpike Authority disputed some of the audit's findings. In its written response, the authority said it effectively administered its employee health-care plan and said auditors had not supported their claim that the agency could have saved money by using the state plan.

The authority also said it would tighten up its management of outside legal work and would try to recover excessive payments to outside attorneys.

Timothy White, a spokesman for DeCotis, FitzPatrick & Cole, said the firm was "working with the Turnpike Authority to review all invoices. . . . If any inadvertent billing errors are identified, we are certainly prepared to immediately reimburse the authority."

A spokesman for Christie called the practices described by the audit "deplorable."

"It's all the more stunning that some of these perks were actually built into labor contracts negotiated by the prior administration," press secretary Michael Drewniak said. "Those contracts - all 10 of them - are up in 2011, and it's safe to say that they will not include built-in abuses like these.

"I mean, who in the private work world gets anything like a bonus for working on their birthday?" he said.

Drewniak criticized Democrats for not approving Christie's nominees to the Turnpike Authority board, sent to the Senate in March.

"Elections have consequences, and one consequence is adding new membership to boards like that at the Turnpike Authority. . . . It's time to stop playing politics," he said.

A state legislator Tuesday used the audit to call for Senate action to reduce spending by independent state authorities such as the Turnpike Authority.

Assemblywoman Nellie Pou (D., Passaic), chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said the Senate should approve a measure passed 77-0 by the Assembly four months ago. The bill is now in the Senate's Committee on State Government, Wagering, Tourism, and Historic Preservation.

Pou's legislation and an identical Senate bill before the same committee would tie the salaries of authority chiefs and managers to the salaries of the governor and cabinet members.

It would limit payments for accumulated unused sick leave to $15,000, payable at retirement. And it would limit paid holidays to the 12 established for full-time state workers once existing authority labor contracts expire.

The bills also would require workers at the authorities to contribute at least 1.5 percent of their base salaries toward the cost of their health-care benefits.

"We've seen too many cases of authorities acting without accountability," Pou said in a statement. "It's long past time for that to stop."


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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