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

The Bell May Toll for Jersey Toll Collectors

By —— Bio and Archives--April 25, 2011

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It was one of those little stories, a three-sentence job on inside pages of last Saturday’s local newspaper. But it illustrates a mentality that is so outrageous—yet so thoroughly typical of the government union mindset—it deserves far wider dissemination than it has received so far. Last Thursday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit in which union workers were seeking to prevent New Jersey from privatizing toll collector jobs on the New Jersey Turnpike, unless those workers got the “right of first refusal” to keep their jobs. But it gets even better: the suit argued that privatization violates workers’ First Amendment rights.


As part of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s efforts to bring that state back from the brink of fiscal oblivion, privatization of some government operations has become part of the equation. In 2010, a governor’s task force recommended that the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which oversees New Jersey’s two main toll roads—the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike—solicit bids from private companies to collect tolls. The move to privatization is itself to be a temporary measure, with the task force recommending an eventual system of all-electronic, cashless tolling. The force estimated an annual savings of between $35 million and $42.5 million when that system was fully implemented.

The reaction of the union workers was predictable. “From the movie ‘Wall Street,’ it was said, greed…is good—and in our business, greed is another word for privatization,” said Ray Stever, president of the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council, an affiliate of the union that represents toll collectors. “Greed” was a rather an unfortunate choice of words. According to State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, chairman of the authority that oversees the Turnpike and Parkway, toll collectors with six years experience make approximately $65,000 a year—a figure which applies to about 90 percent of toll takers currently manning the roadways. Simpson further revealed that 70 percent of all drivers currently pay their tolls electronically, and that manual collecting costs the authority almost double.

And then, as with so many public service employee contracts negotiated with little or no thought for the taxpaying public, there are the “perks:” work rules requiring two collectors to man a booth at all times; a $70 holiday bonus for working an unscheduled day on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve; bonuses and/or overtime for working one one’s birthday; a $700 per year “uniform allowance;” the ability to “cash out” unused sick and vacation days; free E-ZPass transponders for employees to get to work; taxpayer-paid scholarships for employees’ children; and a “separation bonus” of $500 per year for every year of service worked.

An audit revealed even more devastating information. $43 million dollars was “wasted” on “unnecessary perks and bonuses” highlighted by one employee with a base salary of $73,469 who earned an eye-popping $321,985 when such payouts and bonuses were included. $30 million of the above total paid to employees in 2008 and 2009—without job performance being taken into consideration. $3.8 million a year wasted when employees were allowed to cash out the aforementioned unused sick and vacation days—in order to circumvent state law limiting the total payout to $15,000 upon retirement. And if that’s not enough, toll dollars were even spent on an employee bowling league. (A place to practice union strikes, perhaps?)

Unsurprisingly, all of this explains why, according to NJ State Comptroller Matthew Boxer, tolls are scheduled to increase in 2012. “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,” Boxer said in a statement.

Franceline Ehret, president of International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local No.194, brought out the union crying towel. “Until you’ve done the job, you really don’t understand what it is,” she said. “You’ve got tractor-trailers and buses whizzing by. Your booth is shaking. … You’re breathing fumes all day long. You have to deal with all the weather conditions,” she said. And then she added the kicker. “It’s very likely [current workers] going to be on the unemployment line and having to go on federal and state assistance,” Ehret said. “They would much rather be productive.”

Ehret went on to point out that despite cash drawer shortages which cost more than $350,000 in 2010, losses in EZ Pass lanes were $10.1 million. Agency spokesman Thomas Feeney obliterated Ehret’s argument. “We collect just under 75 percent of our toll money through E-ZPass, and our annual cost to operate the E-ZPass program is about $70 million,” Feeney said. “Meanwhile we collect just over one-quarter of our tolls through cash, and our annual toll collection costs are $100 million.”

Reality check: add the $10 million in lost revenue to the $70 million total, and electronic collection—for three times as many collections as toll booth worker make—is still $20 million cheaper.

Ms. Ehret and her fellow unionists have apparently seen the handwriting on the wall. They have offered $34 million in concessions and staff reductions in order to save their jobs. This was up from an initial offer of $16 million made in January. Among those concessions would be a $6000 salary cut for current collectors, a $50,000 per year cap on salaries for new employees, and the elimination of some of the aforementioned perks. The latest concessions offered were seemingly a tacit admission that a typical union tactic, aka attempted intimidation—as evidenced by a meeting in March where workers shouted down Transportation Commissioner Simpson and staged a 40-minute sit-in because they hadn’t been given a firm date to negotiate their contract—is no longer effective.

Then, the lawsuit. The First Amendment angle? The union claimed their free speech rights were violated because the Turnpike Authority eliminated their right to first refusal to the private jobs when it released a request for proposal for potential bidders. The suit claimed this was done “in retaliation for the union speaking out against privatization and the workers sending applications to bidders for jobs.” The Authority contended that the provision, along with union protests against privatization, as well as employees sending job applications to bidders, had discouraged prospective companies from seeking the contract.

U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares apparently agreed—and then some. His one-page order dismissed the suit on Thursday “with prejudice,” and denied the union’s application for a preliminary injunction.

The Turnpike Authority is expected to vote on privatization this Wednesday during their monthly meeting in Woodbridge. They will be considering whether to award a five-year contract to one of four companies that submitted proposals which would reportedly pay toll collectors around $25,000 per year, or accept the union’s latest $34 million concession plan.

Thus, the option comes down to paying 25K per year for new private workers, versus 50K a year for new government union workers, and/or 65K for current workers—perks, somewhat reduced, included. $500 per week versus $1000-$1300 (plus perks), for the “skill” of sticking one’s hand out an opening, collecting money and making change. In a state with one of the highest per capita budget deficits in the nation.

If this “decision” isn’t the biggest no-brainer of the year so far, one would be hard-pressed to imagine what is.


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Arnold Ahlert -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Arnold Ahlert was an op-ed columist with the NY Post for eight years.

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