We work for open, accountable New York State government and transparent New York City government.
Under the law, the MTA and the NY Power Authority are governed by independent boards whose directors are obligated to act in the “public interest” and have to approve major agency expenditures, contracts and capital expenses. But a story in today’s Politico, and background research by Reinvent Albany, suggests that without the approval of the MTA Board, the governor has directed the installation of decorative colored lights and art decor towers on MTA Bridges and Tunnels that will cost between $350m and $500m.
According to public documents the MTA board has never seen a full project budget for Harbor Lights and has not voted on the project. According to Politico, the governor’s office says the New York Power Authority (NYPA) will pay for the project — not the MTA. Yet, according to board minutes from March and January of this year, the NYPA board was told that the MTA would repay NYPA for the costs of the project. (See below.) In other words, NYPA’s board assented to paying for Harbor Lights based on the false promise of repayment. (We say “assented” because it is not completely clear that NYPA’s board actually voted for the expenditure, though they were briefed on it.) Additionally, the NYPA board was told Harbor Lights are a “lighting project to relight the bridges that the MTA controls in New York City” and “improvements to bridges and tunnels… ” involving the “addition of energy efficient LED lighting.”
To recap, the MTA board has never voted to approve Harbor Lights or seen a presentation on how much it will cost, yet the lights are slated to be installed on the MTA Bridges and Tunnels they are legally responsible for. The NYPA board “assented” to spending $216m on Harbor Lights based on the false promise of MTA repayment. Something is wrong here.
Anyone concerned about government accountability should be dismayed that the governor can act like a king with the Power Authority as his piggy bank and the MTA as his toy store.
Power Authority January 2017 Board Meeting
MTA bridge lighting project to relight the bridges that the MTA controls in New York City over the five boroughs. In response to a question from Vice Chairman Nicandri, President Quiniones said that this project would save the MTA money compared to using non-LED technology. If the MTA installed standard lighting rather than high-efficiency LED lighting on the bridges, it would be much more expensive than NYPA’s relighting project. In response to a question from Trustee McKibben, Ms. Anderson said the Authority is the overall Project Manager for the lighting project. NYPA will contract vendors to perform the actual installation. In response to a question from Vice Chairman Nicandri, President Quiniones said that the MTA will be paying the Authority for this service through a fifteen-year financial agreement.
Power Authority March 2017
Bridge Lighting It is anticipated that the Authority, through its Customer Energy Solutions program, will be responsible for implementing a plan to make improvements to bridges and tunnels in the New York City metropolitan region including the addition of energy efficient LED lighting in conjunction with the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (“TBTA”), with costs, which are currently expected to be approximately $216 million, to be paid by or recovered from TBTA.
Reinvent Albany is a leading member of the coalition of watchdog groups pressing for fairer, cleaner and more accountable economic development subsidies. Our focus is on ensuring that existing subsidies are awarded fairly and competitively. But, like many, we are increasingly concerned about the overall effectiveness of handing out taxpayer dollars to select businesses. We are not alone. Today, the USA Today Network’s local NY papers concluded a six month investigation with a major expose on how economic development funds are spent in NY. Here’s what USA Today wrote:
(Business subsidies) are wrought with a lack of oversight, poor performance and questions about whether the state is getting the best bang for big bucks.
We congratulate USA Today’s New York team and highly recommend you read the whole series.
USA Today Network investigation:
New Yorkers are quick to point to what is wrong with government, but New York also has a rich, and continuing, tradition of public innovation. In early May, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government announced the Top 25 programs in their innovations in American Government Awards competition. Six of the 25 programs are located in New York State.
Reinvent Albany congratulates the New Yorkers who created these government and civic tech innovation:
Cell-Ed Pilot Program, State Of New York: Cell-ED is a pilot program to provide free English-language training via mobile phones to hundreds of immigrants in New York State who may lack regular access to a classroom, a computer, or the internet.
Fiscal Stress Monitoring System, Comptroller State of New York: The Fiscal Stress Monitoring System (FSMS) provides an objective and transparent fiscal stress assessment annually for 2,300 local governments in the state, using self-reported financial data. Scores and reports published annually give local stakeholders robust tools for decision-making on budgets and service delivery.
Juvenile Community Accountability Board, Albany County: Juvenile Community Accountability Board (JCAB) provides the Probation Department a diversion option for juveniles charged with misdemeanor or low-level felony offenses. JCAB provides the victims, the community, and the juvenile a reparative experience without needlessly expending correctional resources that can used more effectively for serious juvenile offenders.
LinkNYC, City of New York: LinkNYC is a first-of-its-kind program that is transforming payphones into Wi-Fi kiosks to create the world’s largest and fastest free Wi-Fi network. Links provide fast and secure gigabit Wi-Fi, free domestic calling, USB charging ports, tablets to access wayfinding and city services, and access to contact emergency services.
Mobility Initiative, City of New York: The New York City Police Department’s Mobility Initiative is part of their Plan of Action blueprint, designed to deliver improved police services and break down the barriers between police and the people they serve. As part of this, the NYPD put a smartphone in the hands of all 36,000 officers and placed a tablet in every emergency response vehicle. By providing e-mail addresses and phone numbers to the entire uniformed workforce, the smartphones and tablets make officers, including the new Neighborhood Coordination Officers, directly accessible to the community.
Pre-K for All, City of New York (finalist): In January of 2014, the New York City Mayor’s Office released its ambitious plan to implement universal pre-kindergarten to provide every four-year-old in New York City with access to free, full-day, high-quality pre-K by September of 2015. The New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) served as the lead agency for the initiative, in coordination with the Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives.
Read more about the competition and the Top 25 recipients at the Ash Center’s Website. Finalists will be making presentations to the National Selection Committee of the Innovations in American Government Awards on May 17, 2017.
Reinvent Albany’s John Kaehny was recently on Capitol Tonight talking about the pressing need for the legislature to pass clean contracting reforms in the aftermath of the alleged rigging of $800m in Upstate economic development contracts.
Congratulations to the team at Investigative Post of Buffalo, Pro Publica, and Columbia Journalism School for publishing the best summation of New York State economic development spending done to date. Their exhaustively-documented series lays out in excruciating detail how the roughly $8B a year New York State and local government spend subsidizing businesses, and on dubious pork barrel projects, has not produced jobs, economic growth or societal value, yet has created an enormous opportunity for corruption, influence peddling, and pay to play.
Investigative Post: State of Subsidies
1) State of Subsidies: Job Growth Access Upstate New York Remains Sluggish Despite Billions in Economic Development Subsidies
March 26, 2017
2) Corning Masters the Subsidy Game
March 27, 2017
3) Lackadaisical Vetting of Subsidy Seekers
March 29, 2017
4) Lack of Scrutiny for Subsidy Programs
March 29, 2017