The MTA has dropped a proposal to hire a former prosecutor to investigate the agency’s alarmingly high overtime rate, opting instead to bring in a consultant to review time and attendance procedures.
The decision came during a lengthy, and tense, meeting of the MTA Board on Wednesday that saw several skirmishes among board members over the agency’s handling of outside contractors.
The board arrived at the decision to hire an overtime consultant during a two-hour, closed-door “executive session” that originally was slated to include discussion of a proposal from Lawrence Schwartz, one of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s representatives on the board, to contract a former prosecutor to investigate what he has called “constant” overtime, payroll and pension abuse throughout the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Several members of the MTA Board, including its nonvoting labor representatives, rejected the plan as wasteful and unnecessary, especially given that several other agencies, including the MTA Inspector General, the Queens District Attorney, and the U.S. Attorney’s Southern District, are already looking into the issue.
Union leaders have decried the labeling of their members as crooks and have said the accusations have hurt morale and fueled hostility toward laborers.
“I do not know how much abuse we can take,” MTA Board member Vincent Tessitore Jr., who represents LIRR unions, said before the board went into the private meeting. “With all due respect, this board can’t continue this attack on labor. It’s not going to end well.”
Ultimately, the board dropped the idea to hire another investigator, opting instead for a consultant who will conduct a 60-day review of the MTA’s “timekeeping and attendance issues,” according to MTA board chairman Patrick Foye. Although Foye originally backed Schwartz’ call, he said he “didn’t back down at all” but concluded the consultant was “the appropriate approach.”
Tessitore and fellow board member John Samuelsen, who also represents MTA union workers, said the board rejected Schwartz’ proposal to hire a former prosecutor, and that the plan for a consultant to do a time and attendance review was a compromise.
Later, the MTA said in a statement: “The agreement today doesn’t affect who could be hired for this important position,” referring to the consultant.
The heightened focus on overtime follows a report by the Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative, nonprofit think tank based in Albany, that revealed six of the top 10 earners at the MTA last year were LIRR laborers, whose senior status allowed them to significantly increase their take-home pay by piling on overtime. The MTA’s highest-paid employee last year, LIRR chief measurement officer Thomas Caputo, made $344,147 in overtime on top of his base salary of $117,499, according to the report.
Also at the Manhattan meeting, MTA Board members clashed over whether they should allow a panel of senior managers representing the LIRR’s positive train control contractors to address concerns about several recent problems with the project.
The board had requested that Joe Kaeser, the global CEO of one the contractors, Siemens, attend the meeting to answer questions, but he no-showed.
Schwartz blasted Kaeser’s failure to appear as “disrespectful” and suggested the board should refuse to hear from the contractor’s “flunkies” in attendance — a group that included former MTA executive director Elliot Sander, who now works as president of Bombardier Transportation, Americas Region.
Foye ultimately decided to allow the representatives from Siemens and their project partner Bombardier Transportation to address the numerous recent problems with the $1 billion positive train control project.
The MTA is federally required to have the technology — which automatically stops or slows trains before they are involved in a crash — by the end of 2020. But the effort has been beset with delays and blunders by its contracted developers. Earlier this year, hundreds of antennas installed on trains were recalled because of a calibration error.
Then, in the course of correcting the mistake, Siemens discovered another mistake in how it mounted an electrical component in the antennas. The errors have added millions of dollars to the project’s budget and further delayed the effort.
The U.S. Rail Safety Act originally called for PTC to be in place by 2015. The deadline was later extended to 2018, and the LIRR last year was granted a two-year extension to 2020.
Project officials don’t expect to have the software needed for LIRR trains until early next year. If the MTA doesn’t meet the December 2020 federal deadline, it could face massive fines.
Echoing a commitment made by Kaeser to Foye in a private meeting last week, Siemens and Bombardier representatives told MTA Board members they would do whatever is necessary to finish the project on time.
“If it costs a hundred million dollars on our side to fix what’s gone wrong, we will do this,” said Michael Peter, chief executive of Siemens Mobility. “There is no Plan B.”
Peter also said “there was no intent at all to disrespect” the board by not having Kaeser attend the meeting.