MTA’s Chickens Come Home to Roost

Bloated authority finally dealt a blow by the judicial system. Whether ruling stands on appeal or not, reforms must be sought

ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES EDITORIAL

Congratulations to Nassau County and to all the residents and business owners of the New York metro region. Last week marked a victory for the taxpayers of the region, as the MTA payroll tax was ruled unconstitutional by the New York State Supreme Court in Nassau County.

Supreme Court Justice R. Bruce Cozzens Jr. found that the tax, which passed in 2009 and originally hit most businesses and institutions in the 12-county MTA region with a 0.34 percent tax on payroll, was a “special law” and thus subject to home rule and super-majority requirements in the legislature.

According to Cozzens’ interpretation of the New York Constitution, state lawmakers could not impose this law arbitrarily on one region in the state, as it did not benefit the state as a whole. Upon news of the victory Rockland County announced it would appeal its own similar lawsuit against the MTA tax, which failed in its round in Supreme Court.

If the Nassau County ruling stands on appeal, the MTA and the state will be dealt a $1.2 billion blow to the finances of the MTA, and perhaps will be forced to look within MTA costs and business practices to make some changes. Included on the menu of possible changes could be pension and health benefits reform, a retirement age increase and overtime costs– the usual union issues that often drive up costs to the point that taxpayers must bear an unreasonable burden.

A forensic audit also would be nice, although its potential usefulness has been questioned by some, the fact that so many MTA capital projects run double, triple, quadruple or more the original budget, and take many years longer than originally planned, shows a clear pattern of incompetence or outright graft. There’s even been rumors that MTA projects are subject to higher costs due to problems with organized crime, which certainly could be the case given some of the enormous overages in cost.

Of course, the MTA counters that they have been cutting and making their operations more efficient.

Though it’s not a scientific survey, as journalists we’ve noticed that MTA events are often on the costly side. The Rockland County Times has attended public MTA meetings which featured more security than a governor or United States senator would usually receive. All for the privilege to be in the company of some largely anonymous bureaucrats? Doesn’t make sense, something’s rotten in the state of the MTA.

If major reforms are not achieved at the MTA and the ruling stands up on appeal, the likely place the MTA will get more money is through major subway and bus fare hike or by installing tolls on East River bridges. But if they hit New York City consumers as hard as ruthlessly as they hit suburbanites, the city denizens will strike back and demand some answers to the cost side of the equation.

Rockland residents pay nine taxes to the MTA. If the Nassau ruling stands, it will be down to eight. That’s a lot for a system that is not heavily used in the county. As Rockland County Times Publisher Emeritus Armand Miele has been trying to wake Rockland residents and officials up to for years, the MTA is running an unfair taxation system that is like “taxation without representation.”

Miele has been imploring local officials to find an attorney who’ll take the entire MTA taxation system to court, and believes we can win in federal court. Once again, Miele, the man who rid Rockland County of the illegal Ramapo thruway toll, seems to be on to something.

Any lawyers out there interested in taking up the case? If one Nassau County judge can see the problem with the MTA special payroll tax, there’s a chance the whole MTA gamut predicated on taxing counties that hardly even use the system, might also be illegal, as Miele suspects.

While we don’t know what the future holds, at least one judge in Nassau County restored some order to the universe with his ruling on the MTA payroll tax. And the fight for a fair tax system and an efficient MTA has only just begun.