Written by Matthew A. Piacentini Friday, 06 August 2010 00:00
It became official last week that the MTA plans to cut its funding to Long Island Bus, a move that will effectively eliminate all bus service to over 100,000 Nassau County residents who rely on it daily. A war of words between Nassau County Executive Edward P. Mangano and the MTA has now escalated to a legal battle, with the county filing suit over the controversial MTA employer payroll tax.
“I will not stand by and allow the MTA to eliminate service to the people of Nassau County,” announced Mangano. “This is the first of many steps we will take to fight the MTA on behalf of the 30 million riders who rely on bus service to get to their jobs, visit their doctors and live their lives.”
Nassau County owns the LI Bus system, but since its inception in 1973, the MTA has operated it and contributed to its funding, along with the state and the county. Since 2000, the county has drastically reduced its own contribution to the system. With the MTA subsequently paying millions extra each year, the authority finally said no, taking LI Bus support out of its financial plan for 2010 and beyond. The subsidy has become an amount that the transit authority says it can no longer afford as it works to reduce its own $800 million deficit.
Regarding Nassau’s suit and its refusal to pay more to support busing, MTA spokesperson Kevin B. Ortiz told Anton Community Newspapers, “It’s a shame that Nassau County is using this lawsuit to distract attention from its failure to fund its bus system.”
He was clear that the MTA points to the responsibility of the county, adding, “Nassau County employs MTA Long Island Bus to operate… as a contractor. Since 1999, the county has not lived up to its obligation to fund this service. The preliminary MTA budget presented on Wednesday assumes the county will live up to its full obligation in the future.”
Separate from busing, New York State created a highly contested employer payroll tax to help pay for the MTA to dig out of its financial troubles. Local governments and businesses have protested that the tax is unfair. Now, in the wake of the bus fight, the county is officially attacking this tax in court, claiming it is unconstitutional.
Mangano said, “The MTA instituted this job-killing, oppressive tax last year for no other reason than to grab more money to fund their bloated bureaucracy. Clearly, the millions of dollars that Nassau’s businesses have handed over to the MTA have not been used for the benefit of the public.”
The county executive said that Nassau County has paid approximately $3 million since the implementation of the MTA payroll tax. “We want our money back,” said Mangano.
The county’s lawsuit challenges the legality and constitutionality of the MTA employer payroll tax, and claims that it unfairly targets Nassau County.
The MTA has responded that, “The [New York State] Legislature (not the MTA) determines how taxes are levied.” Adding, “Like other state dedicated taxes, the [tax] provides critical funding for all parts of the MTA system, including the LIRR, which is heavily used by Nassau County residents. It is paid to the state by employers in 12 counties.”
As the lawsuit unfolds, Michael Martino, Mangano’s press secretary, told Anton Community Newspapers that representatives from the county are still trying to create some compromise with the MTA. They also are trying to determine if the buses could be operated by a private contractor.
“The county will continue to look at privatization while exploring a way to work with the MTA,” he said.
The mass transit advocacy group The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has been speaking out on behalf of bus riders. Veronica Venterpool, associate director at the organization, said that the group neither supports the MTA’s cuts or the county’s proposal to privatize.
“Both are extremely hasty,” she said. “The MTA is proposing cutting one third of LI Bus’s operating budget. This will decimate the system. And as far as privatization, there are inherent flaws. The reason the private lines consolidated in 1973 is because the systems weren’t working well. To go back to that will just open up all the same problems.”
Venterpool shared an interesting note – her group found that the MTA’s 2010-14 plan, which includes these bus cuts, also provides $13 million for a series of studies, one of which is on regional bus service.
“We are calling for the MTA to continue with its regional bus study,” she said. “We think it is hasty to pull its financial contribution prior to finishing the study.”
Senator Craig M. Johnson, (D-Nassau), cited regional bus service when he commented, “The MTA should be ashamed of itself for using people’s livelihoods as a bargaining chip. The future of Long Island mass transit should be a strong regional bus system that facilitates North-South travel the same way the Long Island Rail Road handles East-West travel. The state has been consistent in its funding for Long Island Bus. Now the MTA and Nassau County officials need to work together to find a solution that will maintain the system, plan for future expansion, and make sure the people who use Long Island Bus to go to and from work are protected.”