NYS Uncovered: The Fight to Control Authorities

New York State Uncovered

Some people call them shadow governments. Separate authorities control everything from the water we drink to the roads many of us drive every day in New York State. The decisions many of the authorities make frequently happen when no one is watching. That lack of transparency and accountability has led to renewed calls for change.

By the numbers

New York State is home to close 1,200 local and state authorities, according to the office State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. The authorities have $267 billion dollars of debt. That breaks down to more than $13,000 per New Yorker.

Take a trip on the Thruway, hop on a plane or turn on the tap, and you’ll end up “doing business” with one of these authorities.

“These authorities have gone wild if you will,” suggested former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra. He’s now running for governor on the Reform ticket. “A lot of the business that’s being done by the authorities is being done behind closed doors in a very secret, clandestine type of atmosphere,” he said.

News 4 obtained this list of authorities from the NYS Authorities Budget Office. Buffalo has 19 authorities. Even Jamestown has five.

How did we get to this point?

“A lot of it happened because general purpose governments had reached their constitutional taxing margin and their ability to raise new taxes or new debt,” Giambra suggested.

The state legislature created authorities as a way of dealing with debt. Most can issue bonds without voter approval. “They’re out of the public view, and because there’s not much accountability, they are able to do pretty much whatever they want to do until a crisis develops and then, it becomes a media event.”

“If you’re a citizen you have no way of knowing what’s being discussed [and] what’s being voted on,” Paul Wolf told News 4. He runs the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government. His group prepared a “report card” on the transparency of local authorities. “The scores are shameful i would say. Out of the 14 public authorities we reviewed, local public authorities, 13 out of 14 failed.”

They looked at things like how easy it is to find meeting agendas and minutes online. “I mean this is basic stuff. The average score out of 100 was 30.  Some  people got a seven. I mean the buffalo housing authority got a score of 7 out of 100. It’s hard to fathom quite honestly.”

“Billions of dollars flow through these agencies and they’re below the radar screen. It affects every facet of your life,” Wolf accurately stated.

Is there any turning back?

News 4 visited with State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli during a recent visit to Buffalo. He admits the shear amount of authorities is staggering. “I’m not saying that they don’t have a worthy public purpose, which some of them do, but we have so many of them now.”

He worries about a lack of transparency. Too many of them were set up for one purpose – they end up doing many other purposes.” We asked DiNapoli if there’s a way to reverse course. “Technically you can. You can abolish an authority. Most authorities are set up by a special act of the legislature, so you’d have to have a law passed to abolish that authority,” DiNapoli explained.

Then, the question becomes who takes over the responsibility of that entity. “I would like to see for state purposes an end of using those authorities as a vehicle for backdoor borrowing. I think it’s one of the reasons we have the high debt burden we have in the state.”

The NFTA makes its case

Let’s return to the local report card on the authorities from the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) scored the best on the list with a 77. “That is something that we are working on, but we are very happy that we did pass,” explained NFTA Public Affairs Director Helen Tederous.

“We are an authority that is set up very much like a traditional corporation. You can’t get an organization that’s more consolidated and efficient than the NFTA.” 

Tederous says the NFTA board oversees two airports, a police department, rail and bus service and a fire and rescue unit. “So when you think about it, you have all of HR under one roof. You have marketing and PR. You have risk. You have legal. You have accounting, so it’s all under one administrative body, which really is consolidation at its very finest in my mind,” Tederous offered.

Even Giambra agrees. “Government is not in the business of running trains, so you can suggest that maybe the nfta is an appropriate authority which to have,” admitted the former Erie County Executive.

The Future

Giambra’s bullseye is the Erie County Water Authority. “I believe that we should have a regional water and sewer authority. One of them for Erie County. You don’t need a county authority [and] a City of Buffalo Water Authority. These are the types of services, I believe, that are crying for consolidation and merger,” Giambra concluded.

For now those cries for consolidation are only pleas. The chances of the government getting smaller seem slim.

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