Sunday, September 6, 2009
By Peter N. Spencer, Advance Staff Writer
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Since two firefighters — Robert Beddia of South Beach and Joseph Graffagnino — perished in a toxic inferno in the former Deutsche Building in lower Manhattan two years ago, city officials have passed several pieces of legislation they say will ensure such a tragedy will not happen again.
But there’s a problem with that promise: The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), the owner of the Deutsche Bank building, doesn’t have to obey those laws.
Like hundreds of public authorities, corporations and commissions in the state of New York, the LMDC exists outside the purview of city or state government.
These quasi-government entities borrow and spend billions of dollars a year, yet no one really knows how much or where that money goes.
They operate facilities Staten Islanders rely on every day, like bridges, roadways and buses, and hold sway over vital projects, from school construction to water supply facilities, yet are subject to little government regulation or oversight.
THEY’VE LOST COUNT
In fact, there are so many authorities — and they constantly reproduce smaller “offspring” — that no one has been able to count them all. In a 2005 study, the state comptroller estimated there were between 700 to 800 in New York state.
Seymour Lachman, a former state senator who now heads Wagner College’s Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform, called authorities New York’s “shadow government.’
“There are literally thousands of people that sit on these public commissions, make huge salaries and serve for life. They make all these decisions and no one even knows who they are,” said Lachman.
Despite vast criticism they are wasteful and secretive, efforts to reform authorities have been consistently thwarted. Gov. David Paterson is set to veto the most recent attempt, the Public Authorities Reform Act, which was passed with bipartisan support in the state Assembly and Senate.
Robert Helbock, a longtime aide to former Island Republican Sen. John Marchi, recalled how frustrating it was trying to enforce relatively modest changes — like getting the MTA to lower tolls on Island bridges.
That’s because toll rates are usually set in the language of the bonds that authorities issue; bonds are contracts, and thus considered sacred by the U.S. Constitution.
“It was difficult, because they have an almost autonomous role in impacting the cost of getting on and off the Island,” said Helbock, who was counsel for the Senate Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions while Marchi served as chairman.
While the state Senate has some oversight of various authorities, it mostly relies on the voluntary cooperation of these entities to ensure public safety and maintain a modicum of fiscal responsibility.
Usually, authorities prefer that government leave them alone — unless they need a bailout, like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) did this spring.
CREATED LAST CENTURY
Public authorities were created by the state Legislature in the early 20th century to finance and construct facilities that would otherwise place a massive burden on the state or city tax roll.
Lawmakers originally intended for them to disband once they paid off their loans through tax-exempt bonds, usually through toll revenues. But several good-government groups say authorities have only increased their influence over our lives since Moses’ era.
The aim of the Public Authorities Reform Act is to make authorities more efficient, less subject to cronyism and more accountable to the public. It would create an independent budget office that can investigate authorities and monitor their spending; require that the state comptroller review contracts awarded by authorities that are worth more than $1 million, and allow the state to disband and consolidate them.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg — himself a vocal opponent of authorities such as the MTA and the LMDC — says the bill goes too far. He argued it would hurt development projects because it mandates that authorities must sell any land they own at the market rate.
Some lawmakers agree with Bloomberg’s arguments, but still think the governor should sign the bill and make amendments to address those concerns later.
Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Mid-Island) is one of them. Residents have a good reason to mistrust agencies like the MTA and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he said, because they have little transparency.
“Most people are confused about what authorities actually do,” Cusick said.
“They just see them as these large monsters.”