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State audit slams LIRR on skyrocketing overtime

MTA workers work on LIRR equipment at the

MTA workers work on LIRR equipment at the Hillside facility. (March 11, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday File / Alejandra Villa

The financially beleaguered MTA has too often turned a blind eye to the skyrocketing costs of overtime in its transit agencies, including from its worst offender - the Long Island Rail Road, according to a state audit released Thursday.

The report from the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found the LIRR sets aside a greater portion of its budget to cover overtime than any other MTA agency - $103 million.

"The MTA is cutting services, raising fares and tolls, and laying off employees, but it should be doing more to control expenses," DiNapoli said Thursday. "When scores of employees are earning more in overtime than they make in salary, it's time for the MTA to change the culture of acceptance to a culture of accountability." And, DiNapoli said, MTA budget watchers don't seem concerned.

MTA officials said that the report reinforces problems they have already made public and have taken "aggressive actions" to address. Overtime costs at the LIRR have fallen 15 percent this year, officials said.

The LIRR budgeted 17 percent of its payroll in 2009 for overtime costs. That compares to 16.7 at MTA Bridges & Tunnels, 14.7 percent at Metro-North Railroad and 9.1 percent at New York City Transit.

The report also found that, in 2009, the four highest earners of overtime among the MTA's 7,100 workers - and 11 of the top 16 - all came from the LIRR.

 

LIRR blames work rules

The LIRR has the highest share of overtime expenses, spokesman Sam Zambuto said, "because we have more onerous work rules built into our collective bargaining agreements than other MTA agencies."

The audit found that 3,274 MTA employees last year earned overtime pay equaling at least half of their annual salary, including 147 who earned enough in overtime to double their salaries, or more.

MTA's overtime costs climbed 26 percent between 2005 and 2009, when the MTA paid $560 million in overtime.

Meanwhile, the report said, the MTA's central office accepted overtime budgets from agencies, including the LIRR, "without questioning them or making any effort to reduce overtime spending at constituent agencies."

Auditors noted that, of 77 specific overtime payments sampled by auditors, they could find documented justification for just 18 payments.

To get the increasing costs under control, DiNapoli made several recommendations, including that the MTA consider changing employee schedules, have extra employees available to offset absent ones and set specific overtime reduction goals.

MTA chairman and chief executive Jay Walder announced in May plans to cut overtime by $60 million next year through a combination of better management controls and collective bargaining with unions, whose contracts and work rules regulate how overtime is paid. He acknowledged then that much of the MTA's overtime expenses were "unnecessary and can't be justified."

 

MTA faces budget gap

The MTA has struggled since last year to climb out of a $900-million budget hole, including through widespread service cuts, layoffs, and a 7.5 percent fare hike expected to take effect in January.

"The comptroller's audit confirms what we reported earlier this year and reinforces the need for the aggressive actions we're taking to reduce unnecessary overtime," MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said. "We will do our part, but active participation from our labor unions is the only way to make the type of impact we all want."

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union - the LIRR's largest union - could not be reached for comment Thursday, but has said LIRR employees work overtime only when called upon to do so and that recent LIRR layoffs have only increased the need for overtime.

Travis Proulx, spokesman for the State Senate majority Democrats, who passed a $2.9-billion bailout of the MTA in May of last year, said the wasteful spending identified in DiNapoli's report has plagued the MTA for years.

"This is a time when everybody has to tighten his belt, and that's a lesson that the MTA seemingly fails to learn time and again," Proulx said. "And we're going to remember that every time that they come to us with their hand out."

Scott Reif, spokesman for the Senate Republicans, called it an "outrage" that the MTA would use the Democrat-supported MTA payroll tax to fund wasteful overtime spending.

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