BUFFALO, NY - An audit by the New York State Authorities Budget Office (ABO) released on Tuesday says the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority could save $10.8 million in security costs if it eliminated its police force and instead relied on local law enforcement agencies for its police functions.
Tuesday night, Scott Brown had some tough questions for the NFTA about why it needs its own police force.
The NFTA could still save up to $5.1 million if it kept its airport security staff and relied on local police for the public transit system.
NFTA Executive Director Kimberley Minkel insists that not only is the NFTA Police Force necessary, but that the NFTA has taken several steps to improve its efficiency.
She also provided a list of more than two dozen transit systems with light rail operations which maintain their own police forces.
Read the entire ABO audit here.
Other findings reported in the audit:
- The NFTA reported $98 million in revenue and $250 million in operating costs for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2012
- Operating assistance from state, federal and local governments amounted to $107 million for the 2011-2012 fiscal year
- The NFTA has more than 1,500 employees, with annual payroll costs of about $116 million
- The NFTA employs 85 police officers while other upstate transit agencies have none
- The NFTA pays $3.1 million for janitorial services provided by employees while also paying for private contractors at some of its properties
- Eliminating more underused bus routes could save more than half-of-a-million dollars per year
- Raising the cost of its college pass and eliminating the Downtown free-fare zone are possible revenue-enhancing strategies the NFTA could enact.
The audit gives credit to the NFTA for adopting a series of cost savings measures to manage its annual operating losses...including eliminating some under utilized bus routes and reducing utility costs by almost 30% in the last three years.
However, it concludes that even with those measures, the NFTA will continue to incur future deficits, and that there are several areas where it could be saving substantial funds, as well as bring in millions of dollars more in revenue.
For example, the report says the NFTA needs to do better in collecting on $1.5 million in fines issued for fare evasion on metro rail, which remain outstanding.
"We recognized about a year ago that our collection efficiency wasn't what it needed to be," said NFTA Executive Director Kimberley Minkel, who told WGRZ-TV the NFTA was in the process of finalizing a contract with a collection agency. "Hopefully, that will help to recoup a lot of these fines," she said.
The report notes the current $50 fine for fare evaders is among the lowest in the country and suggests increasing the severity of the fine by perhaps three times as much, in order to deter fare evaders. The NFTA in its written response contends its fare evasion rate is among the lowest in the country, and disagrees that increasing fines will serve as a deterrent to fare evasion.
The report also found that NFTA employs its own staff to clean transit stations and the airports, at an annual cost of over $3 million, while simultaneously contracting out those services at other NFTA properties.
NFTA claims it is precluded by federal law from subcontracting some of the airport jobs, and says subtracting others would be met by stiff resistance from unions.
The Authorities Budget Office also identified several bus routes that were significantly under utilized, and contends that if they were altered or eliminated, it would save approximately $600,000 annually. Some of the runs observed were carrying as few as 5 riders and at times had no riders at all.
One of them, route #49, which begins at University Station and ends at Millard Fillmore Hospital costs $12,000 annually in direct costs to operate, meaning the NFTA would need to collect over $9 per rider to recover its costs according to the report.
The NFTA says that particular underperforming route, as well as several others, have been reduced or in some cases eliminated since the auditors began their work last July.
The report notes that for every dollar the NFTA spends to operate its three transit centers, it only collects one dollar in rental and vendor payments. It suggests that not only does it not charge enough to rent slots to private over the road carriers (such as Trailways, Greyhound, and Mega-Bus) at its downtown center, but fails to effectively enforce contracts for vendors operating inside, one of which hadn't made a payment in nearly two years and owes the authority $43,000.
The NFTA contends it has successfully negotiated more favorable terms with over the road carriers in recent years, and hopes to do even better with its lease negotiations in the future.
It says it is also working to recover what is owed by the vendor cited in the report.
"We have evicted that vendor, and it has been turned over to collections" noted Minkel, who added that there was a reason they were allowed to skate on back rent for so long before being evicted.
"We were a little slow to respond because it was a vendor who provided food service. We wanted to make certain that we could still provide food service for those passing through the transit center, "said Minkel, who says the eviction was able to proceed once they had secured a new vendor to set up shop and provide food and drink to travelers.
The report found that NFTA paid hired retired employees on a part-time basis, without specific job descriptions or employment contracts, which appear to perform functions that are the responsibility of current full-time NFTA employees...seven of whom, were paid a total of $480,000 in the last two years.
In its response the NFTA wrote that while it agreed that a written job description should be prepared...none of the individuals hired on part-time basis are performing work that is also being performed by another NFTA employee. The NFTA says it is capitalizing on the value-added retention of talent and knowledge by retaining these individuals on a part-time basis, thereby saving money on benefits and the cost of adding full-time employees to perform this work.
The review suggests the amount the NFTA charges local college students for ride passes is woefully low, and that even if it increased it by 50%, it could still give college kids an affordable ride, and bring in another three quarters of a million dollars a year.
In its response, the NFTA expressed some reluctance to do so, saying the University Pass concept was created not only to generate revenue, but to introduce a new generation of riders to the Metro system. It is described by the NFTA as a volume discount program, where the school receives a discounted price because all students are required to pay for a pass whether they use it or not.
The report suggests the NFTA follow the lead of other transit systems, and eliminate the downtown free fare zone, to increase revenues by 1 million dollars a year.
The NFTA says it's thought about it, but decided between the infrastructure needed to place additional ticket dispensers, and the potential loss of riders, which might result, it wouldn't be cost effective.
The report suggests the since the free fare zone is located entirely within the Buffalo Place business improvement district, that it and its member businesses be charged an annual assessment, to support at least some of the cost.
The report suggests saving $19,000 annually by eliminating or restricting the use of unlimited , free ride passes for retired employees and current staff, one of whom it was found, rode the transit system for free over 800 times during the year, using the free rides primarily to conduct business associated with a second job.
NFTA officials indicate that NFTA management is required to ride the transit system to evaluate service levels. As a result, complete elimination of free rides for employees is not practical. However, they agree that some restrictions on the use of free rides could be implemented, such as allowing two per day for commuting to work, subject to union negotiations.