Thursday, July 19, 2007

County Controller finally exercises rightful authority

In a previous post, I commented on the role of the controller and why this county position had never provided oversight to the approximately $25 million the county turns over to the Port Authority each year. We learned how the 'crisis' in the Port Authority's budget was years in the making and how Onorato, during his years as controller, said the authority had 'resisted' efforts to scrutinize what happens to that $25 million. When news of routes cuts went public he passed this hot potato to Flaherty, who would be the first controller actively involved in the authority. Ed Heath had commented then, "Now if the Authority raises rates or cuts routes, or even just has a mini-scandal, people will say “Where was the county in all this?” Well, were learning were the county stands on the authority.

State budget approval on Tues as reported in the Trib:

The bill, passed by the state House on Tuesday, would add about $55 million to the state's $135 million annual share of the chronically cash-strapped Port Authority budget. The state money, however, is contingent on Allegheny County coming up with about $30 million to $35 million in matching funds, which Chief Executive Dan Onorato has said he'll release only if the Port Authority cuts costs in the next labor contract.
So, the move by Rendell, seeming to be the theme of his budget proposal across the board, is to put more responsibility on the municipalities to attend to municipal problems, taking public pressure off the state.
"No more coming back each year and saying, 'We have a crisis.' No more living hand-to-mouth, month-to-month," Rendell said, adding that the bill provides enough resources to keep the transit agency afloat for at least 10 years.
What this has done is give municipalities a legislative option (alcohol tax or rental car tax) to levy taxes to solve their budget probems. Consequently, the burden moves from the state to the municipality (from Rendell to Onorato to Flaherty) and the Controller's role is forced to exercise its responsibility and account for expenditures, thereby assuring better delivery of services (in theory, of course). And Onorato shouldn't release that money until the Port Authority Board produces a plan marrying efficiency and good service.

Today we learn the result of the audit the controller began back in April.

Among other inefficiencies, Flaherty said:
"We recommend that the board of directors and management of the Port Authority set a near-term goal of improving operational performance to at least meet, if not exceed, the average performance of benchmarked agencies."
From WPXI:
- Over the last five years, Port Authority's budget exceeded its revenue.
- Current rider-to-bus ratios show that 46 percent fewer buses would be needed if the trend continues.
-Pension contributions significantly increased between 2005 and 2006.
-Forty-three percent of the Port Authority's health care costs go towards retirees.
Hopefully, whatever suggestions proposed for the Port Authority's ills will include consultation with the employees' union this time. In the spring, a union rep had mentioned how the service and employee benefit cuts were news to him since the Board had never consulted the union.

It's a shame that it took so long to get the Port Authority to consider meeting benchmark performance standards - and responsibility for past failures rests with the Board alone. Perhaps we can consider what role a one-party rule in this region has contributed to the problem (that would take some investigation to make that argument).


EdHeath said...

Yeah, the math here hurts my head. PAT is going to get $55 million more from the state and another $30 to $35 mil from the county. They were $40 million in the hole, and now they are getting twice that. Plus gas is going up, so besides nursing home employees who don’t have cars, the occasional PNC banker might consent to get on a bus. But I don’t hear anything the fare hike being rescinded or routes being restored, or even anything about drivers or retirees agreeing to kick in on part of their health care. I guess the county will force them to do part of the health care thing, because the county now has veto power over the bailout. And that’s fine, and the Authority still has some house cleaning to do (like getting itself back to the Manchester headquarters from the, what, “57” building). But the Authority is probably not supposed to run in the black, in the sense of having more tax money coming in than it can spend. What happens then? A two cent fare reduction? PAT’s funding comes in from Federal, State, County sources, from fares and arguably from cost cutting measures on the backs of the drivers (and they would argue that). Who could they possibly return excess funds to? Well, I imagine they would put the funds in a “rainy day” or reserve fund, and start scouting for a new headquarters in PPG place or something.

Skip said...

Well, we aren't privy to their books so we have to remain ignorant of these big figures and expenditures. i would be interested in cost/benefit analyses on tax investment and budget priorities. Perhaps parts 2 & 3 of Flaherty's auditing will come up with suggestions.

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