"It's time for the MTA to come clean on the filthy train stations across Nassau County," Hempstead Town Receiver of Taxes Don Clavin demanded at a Feb. 11 press conference. "From rampant pigeon droppings and crumbling stairways to exposed electrical wiring, many local stations have evidenced unpleasant, unsafe and unsanitary conditions."
Moreover, what further upsets Clavin is the fact that every Nassau County resident pays taxes that go toward station maintenance. Annually, Nassau County transmits money to the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) for this purpose.
"Residents will pay over $22 million for 2004 and $23 million in 2005. The shame of it all is that, in my estimation, residents are paying for work that is not being performed," Clavin said, adding that he's calling on the MTA to prove that residents have actually received millions of dollars in services, particularly station maintenance.
Unsafe conditions at Floral Park's train station have upset Hempstead Town Receiver of Taxes Don Clavin, who's calling on the MTA to provide evidence that residents have actually received millions of dollars in services under the category of train station maintenance.
Almost a decade ago, the MTA and some suburban counties, including Nassau, changed the manner in which counties were billed for the cleaning and maintenance of railroad stations, Clavin explained. The counties went from receiving a bill for the actual cost of work performed to a flat fee. According to LIRR officials, station maintenance funding is based on a legislative agreement between the MTA and the counties that the MTA's commuter railroads serve. The funding is based on a formula approved by each county assessed and increases by the consumer price index. The funding formula was established to eliminate the administrative cost of yearly audits.
Between 2000 and the present, station renovation and improvement work was completed or is under way at 29 of the 57 LIRR stations in Nassau County at a cost of $66.7 million, according to LIRR officials. Specifically, improvement work at the Floral Park station included the installation of a new escalator and the rehabilitation of stairs and the platform escalator enclosure. The LIRR completed this work in 2004 at a cost of $1.2 million. Further, in mid-2003, at a cost of $1.1 million, parking lots surrounding the station were re-paved and re-striped and sidewalks and curbs installed while the station's building and platform waiting rooms were rehabilitated back in 2000 for $1 million.
The station's building, waiting rooms and restrooms are cleaned once daily, including sweeping, mopping, emptying trash receptacles and clearing platform and stairways of litter. Heavy duty cleaning is performed twice a month when all interior surfaces of the station's building and waiting rooms are tidied up. Seasonal steam and chemical spray cleaning of masonry structures - the exterior of the station's building, stairways, plaza and exterior and interior of the platform waiting room - are performed April through November.
Clavin has written Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman and County Executive Tom Suozzi, asking that they withhold station maintenance payments to the MTA until conditions improve. "Nassau taxpayers should not pay 'more for less,'" Clavin continued.
Under state law, the MTA bills New York City and counties for station cleaning services. Beginning April 1, Nassau County may petition the MTA for a modification of this payment based upon "changes made to commuter services including but not limited to changes in the number of passenger stations within such county or the level of commuter rail service provided to any such passenger stations." If the county and the MTA cannot reach agreement on a lower amount, New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi is required to mediate. Should this mediation fail, the matter may then be referred for action by the state legislature.
"The MTA is simply not doing its job and the county comptroller needs to do a better job monitoring the work being performed ... It's time to derail the MTA's practice of billing taxpayers for work that is clearly not being performed," Clavin reiterated.
During the summer of 2003, Weitzman surveyed LIRR station maintenance problems and met with commuters. He also met with LIRR President James Dermody and his staff to bring the problems, which included lack of security, vermin, bird droppings, garbage, restroom conditions and more, to the LIRR's attention.
Jane Levine, Nassau County's chief deputy comptroller, responded to Clavin's recent letter, stating, "We agree that the LIRR is paying insufficient attention to the physical condition of its Nassau County stations ... Although our meetings resulted in some improvements, clearly much more needs to be done," she said.
Levin further noted that the New York State Public Authorities Law mandates that the county's annual contribution for LIRR station operation, maintenance and use be determined by a mathematical formula - not by the actual audited service provided by the MTA. "Unless the MTA agrees (or is forced to agree) to a change in this formula, the county must pay the statutorily mandated amount. Little would be accomplished by Nassau County withholding its mandated contribution to the MTA ... Should the county fail to pay the statutorily required annual contribution, the law provides that the state comptroller 'shall withhold an equivalent amount' from state aid," Levine explained.
Alan Morrison, director of communications for Weitzman's office, concurred, adding, "Unfortunately, the idea of withholding the county's funds from the MTA is illegal ... It's really an empty exercise."
New York State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Dean Skelos, the Senate's representative on the four-person MTA Capital Program Review Board, joined Clavin in urging new capital investments and maintenance efforts to improve conditions for commuters and beautify the community.
On June 1, the MTA will bill Nassau County for the period between April 1, 2004 and March 31, 2005, with payment due by Sept. 1. "It's an insult to ask residents to pay for work that clearly isn't being performed. I believe the MTA should remedy the horrendous conditions at many stations before the county remits any funds for station maintenance," Clavin suggested.
Supporting Clavin's call for a lower annual service payment from the county to the MTA, Senator Skelos indicated his intention to introduce legislation reducing Nassau's annual contribution if negotiations fail.
Levine said the comptroller's office "certainly supports efforts to induce the MTA and LIRR to bring the maintenance of their stations to acceptable levels." If Senator Skelos wishes to introduce legislation that would make it meaningful for the county to withhold funds, Levine noted that Weitzman's office would support it. She urged Clavin and Skelos to share their concerns with LIRR President Dermody, the MTA board and Governor George Pataki, who "exerts enormous influence over the MTA's budget and spending priorities."