Investigation: Spending at Local Thruway Office

6:13 PM, Nov 15, 2012   |    comments
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NYS Thruway Authority's Buffalo Division Administration Office in Cheektowaga.

CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. - Since 2005, the New York State Thruway Authority has raised your tolls four times. And now they want another increase.

This time, the authority is considering a whopping 45% hike on big trucks, which would mean some of them will have to pay nearly $200 to drive across the state.

Many in the business community believe the cost of the hike will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for the goods being shipped in those trucks.

"It's pretty hard to conceive, in this day and age, for any public service to be increasing by the order of magnitude that the thruway authority is proposing," said Andrew Rudnick, President of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise and Co-Founder of an organization called Unshackle Upstate.

So where's your toll money going? 2 On Your Side wanted to see how the authority was spending money here in Western New York, specifically on workers at the authority's Buffalo Division Administration Office on Cayuga Road in Cheektowaga.

The employees at this office are mostly white-collar workers, not the lower-paid folks who plow, maintain, and clean up the highways for the authority here.

Based on records we obtained from the authority, it certainly pays to work at this office. As of late September, the Buffalo Division Administration Office had 53 workers, with eight of them making more than $100,000. The annual payroll for the office is more than $4.126 million dollars. The average salary is $77,849.

We also found at least three politically-connected workers on the payroll here, although we don't know the circumstances under which they were hired. First is William Eagan, former supervisor of the town of Boston and the brother of a top official in the state Democratic party. He makes more than $95,000 a year in Construction Management.

The second employee is a brother-in-law of former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, making $82,870, he's the highest-paid Traffic Operations Employee in the office. We're told he was hired several years before Hoyt entered politics.

The third employee is the son former South Buffalo Assemblyman Dick Keane. He makes more than $71,000 a year as a member of the Authority's Administrative Staff, handling public relations.

REPORTER: Do you think they can justify what they're spending in that local office?
RUDNICK: I think the most candid answer is we don't know.

Rudnick is calling on the authority to allow a forensic audit of its books. The audit, he said, should go position-by-position to see if they're necessary with the results made available to the public.

"It's really part of a much larger assessment of whether a huge tax in the form of a toll increase is justified given what we do not know about the efficiency of the organization," Rudnick said. "That's the reason for the audit."

Depew's Donna Luh is Vice Chair of the Thruway Authority Board. She's now opposed to the 45% toll hike for trucks.

REPORTER: How would you describe the size of the staff, at least here in Buffalo?
LUH: It seems large.

REPORTER: How do we know, as the public, that you're doing everything in your power to cut your own costs before you take money from everybody else?
LUH: We owe it to the public, to show you, to tell you what we're doing.
REPORTER: Shouldn't that have happened before he heard about this proposed toll hike?"
LUH: Yes. Yes.

During its public meetings regarding the toll hike this summer, the authority provided the following information about efficiency: it said it will implement $100 million in Operational Cost-Savings over the next 3 years; that it will cut $300 million from its 2012-2015 Capital Plan; and it will use an Asset Management System to improve which projects it selects.

But the authority provided no specifics. When we asked Authority Spokesperson Dan Weiller specific questions about the staffing in this Buffalo Division Office, he declined to comment.

Luh said the authority is looking at its spending on staff.

REPORTER: I'm talking about a top-to-bottom specific audit, line-by-line, position by position, to see if this stuff is really worth it. Is that something the authority should do?
LUH: I'm not going to say we shouldn't. Now that we're raising tolls, or looking into raising tolls, the public has a right to ask these questions.

Weiller told us that, if you include the salaries of the Thruway Authority's blue collar workers from this region, the average salary for thruway workers here is much lower than $78,000 a year. We asked the authority to send us that data, so we could include it in our report. The authority refused, telling us we would have to file a freedom of information request for it, just as we did for the information in this report. It took them more than a month to give us that information.

You can email the Thruway Authority to share your thoughts about an audit or toll hike, or anything other topic, by visiting its website.

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