Niagara Gazette

August 14, 2013

EDITORIAL: Getting priorities straight at NYPA

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Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Just when Western New York’s beleaguered electricity rate payers think they’ve heard it all, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli releases an audit that found 35 percent of the New York Power Authority’s 1,636 full- and part-time employees earn $100,000 or more per year. Of those, 58 employees earned in excess of $150,000. 

By comparison, as DiNapoli notes, just 14 percent of state public authority employees as a whole earn more than $100,000, and only 8 percent of state employees earn as much. 

As an added insult, DiNapoli’s auditors found the authority — which is now operating with debt approaching nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars — continues to fly its own private plane by employing three full-time pilots and a director of aviation and travel who, all together, were paid nearly $400,000 last year. 

While authority officials have accused DiNapoli’s audit team of misinterpreting key facts and ignoring reforms they have enacted in recent years, there’s no denying that the latest report underscores an all-too-familiar trend when it comes to authority operations.

This is not the first time state auditors have uncovered questionable expenses inside the entity charged with distributing New York’s low-cost hydropower, including electricity produced at our own Robert Moses Power Project in Lewiston. 

Two years ago, state auditors found authority executives had spent roughly $340,000 on various events over a two-year period, including $160,000 on a total of 21 holiday parties and picnics and $46,000 on gifts for employees. 

While we agree authority executives have enacted reforms and cut spending on such things since then, we can’t help but question the entity’s salary structure anymore than we could ignore the authority’s plane and the staff it employs to keep it flying. 

To authority executives who might bristle at such criticism, we would ask the following question: How may private businesses in Western New York have a workforce where one-third of the employees earn $100,000 or more per year? How many can afford to fly their top executives around on their own company plane? 

The answer, quite obviously, is not enough.

This is troubling considering the whole purpose of having a power authority in the state of New York is to make sure the tremendous asset we have in low-cost electricity generated at plants like the one in Lewiston is distributed in such a way as to spur economic development, grow businesses and create high-paying jobs for residents.

It’s clear Western New York is not there yet, not by a longshot, even though it is home to the largest producer of low-cost hydropower in the entire state system. 

In fact, most businesses in our area, and governmental entities as well for that matter, have been forced to do less amid trying economic times in recent years. 

Is it too much to ask the individuals in charge of the power authority to do the same?

Indeed, didn’t we ask for much the same thing back in 2006 and again in 2011?

Do we really need to ask, once again, for authority executives to be more fiscally conservative moving forward? 

Sadly, the answer appears to be yes. 

For years, local officials and, more recently, federal lawmakers representing Western New York, have petitioned the authority in an effort to secure funds for economic development projects based largely on the argument that the entity, which rakes in billions in profits each year, has the resources and can afford it.

DiNapoli’s latest audit only serves to reinforce an already valid point.

It also reminds Western New York ratepayers of what they already know: When it comes to authority operations, it’s not so much a matter of resources as it is a matter of priorities.