Throughout history, there have always been makers and takers.
Makers create things: jobs, products and wealth. Takers produce nothing. Instead, they leech off the makers.
And the biggest taker of all is government.
Oppressive, "taking" governments hold center stage in most foreign countries, where taxpayer rights and the rule of law are cocktail party jokes. But increasingly, the takers are also making their mark in America, squeezing the economic lifeblood out of business and zapping citizens’ creativity and hope.
Usually, the take comes in increments, with public officials saying it’s our duty to accept such small sacrifices. But once the takers set their hooks, they never let go. Consider:
-The tax we pay on every bottle of Pennsylvania liquor to rebuild Johnstown from the flood is "just" 18 cents per dollar. Granted, reconstructing the mega-metropolis of Johnstown must have been a Herculean task, but the flood was…. in 1936.
-The recent city sales tax hike for Philadelphia is "only" a penny, and the city’s 10 percent property tax increase is "temporary." The truth: residents are leaving the city to make purchases because of the "small," 100 percent hike; and no tax is ever temporary.
-And of course, we have the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) who, after mismanaging our toll dollars (READ: spending half-a-BILLION dollars on economic development projects having nothing to do with the bridges), now finds it fitting to raise tolls — again — on its four bridges and the PATCO train line. But hey, it’s just a dollar! Take one for the team, we’re told.
So what’s a toll-payer to do? Answer: Relax, you’ve already done it. You elected Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett as Pennsylvania’s new Governor, and he gets to wipe the Rendell-slate clean and appoint a new DRPA Chairman and Board of Commissioners for Pennsylvania.
And make no mistake, with the no-nonsense law-and-order bookends of Corbett and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie now running the Authority, it’s a whole new ballgame, and the toll hike can, and should, be stopped before it goes into effect on July 1.
All it takes is political will.
It is not enough to play the blame-game with Port Authority executives and former Governors Rendell and Corzine, all of whom presided over the unmitigated disaster that now defines the DRPA.
While it is important to remember how the Authority got us into this mess, and to hold accountable those who disregarded the toll-paying public (and possibly the law), only immediate, concrete solutions can halt the back-breaking hikes, and prevent future increases that the public simply can’t afford, and shouldn’t have to pay.
To put into perspective how truly bad things have become, just look at the driving force behind the toll increase: Wall Street bondholders. That’s right. Those financiers are so concerned about their investment that they have been relentlessly pushing the Board to put the screws to commuters and jack up the rates.
The mind-blowing lesson from this past week’s Board meeting is that the DRPA isn’t being run for the public anymore (not that it ever was). Instead, its reckless spending now has them dancing to Wall Street’s tune. The interest of bondholders trump the public because of the debt carried for economic development projects that A) don’t help the economy, and B) develop only animosity for the DRPA. With absolutely no revenue return to the DRPA, the projects were, and still are, a black hole of political patronage, funded by the public for the sole benefit of the DRPA insiders.
However, there is a silver lining to this mess. For the first time, the public and honorable politicians are starting to look at how the DRPA can be dismantled. Leasing it to a private entity, selling PATCO, and dissolving the governing compact are all options — once unthinkable — now on the table.
Here are several actions that would allow to the DRPA to regain a solid financial footing while not raising the toll, and, most important, start down the long road of earning back the public’s trust:
1) Gov. Christie should veto the Board’s actions, which approved $200 million in more spending for PATCO. Whether that money must be spent is irrelevant; common sense dictates that the DRPA should wait 30 more days until Corbett and his appointees come to power and have their say. This is exactly what the Board did last December when it rushed to pass patronage projects ahead of Christie’s inauguration (and his veto power).
2)Gut the DRPA, starting at the top. Fire all high-level executives, who would have been canned long ago had they worked in the private sector. Their lack of even basic performance reminds us of the speech delivered to shareholders by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, "…Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents, each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out…. in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated." The DRPA’s top brass are the toll-payers’ Teldar executives.
3) Slash employees, salaries and benefits. Why the need for 900 employees — with lavish salaries and benefits — to operate four bridges and a short rail line is still a mystery. And to add insult to injury, many executives make more than the governors of both states. For example, CEO John Matheussen betters them by $50,000 per year, and, up until recently, had a $17,000/year car allowance. It is unfortunate when people get laid off, but many positions should never have been created in the first place. The DRPA is a revolving jobs program for the politically connected, subsidized by hapless commuters, and that must end.
4) Freeze all economic development money, period. That goes for dollars still in the pot and monies allocated but unspent. Rendell’s lack of legal knowledge in this area notwithstanding, the DRPA is not contractually obligated to spend the money already awarded for these projects. And to those recipients who yell that they want "their" money, the toll-payers have news for them: it’s not "their" money, and they possess no God-given right to pig-out at the public trough.
5) Perform a bend-over, proctologist-like forensic audit, top to bottom (no pun intended) of absolutely everything. Here’s the key: it cannot be performed by the Pennsylvania Auditor General since he sits on the Board, and, no disrespect to Gov. Christie, but the New Jersey Comptroller is a political appointee. The only way this type of audit bears any fruit is to have an outside firm — way, way outside, with no political ties whatsoever — come in and turn over every stone. Heck, maybe they’ll even find more interesting tidbits to pass along to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, currently investigating the Authority.
6) Have only one cash lane per bridge, eliminating three shifts of toll-takers making $24/hour plus benefits. Ideal? No, but that’s the price for getting back to a bare bones operation without paying more tolls.
7)Explore public-private partnership and leasing options. DRPA executives were never motivated to run the Authority like a business; in fact, the opposite was true. The more money they spread around, from no-bid legal work (often where NJ and PA law firms would each generate billing for the same project) and insurance contracts, to engineering and economic development expenditures, the "return" was not Port Authority efficiencies, but personal gain and political profit.
If all management and operational aspects were turned over to a private, for-profit company skilled in streamlining techniques and maximizing efficiencies, the cost savings could be astronomical. Such programs have been tried successfully with other toll roads, and a management company (with government oversight) could provide immediate and long-lasting savings.
It is time, once and for all, to see the DRPA return to its original mandate: collect toll dollars to operate and maintain safe bridges… bridgesthat have been paid for numerous times over. Gov. Corbett has an historic opportunity to do just that by appointing reform-minded, accountable Commissioners — former cop and current State Representative Mike Vereb, who continues to bulldog the DRPA into more reforms, comes to mind — and immediately move to stop the toll hike.
By instituting common sense cost-cutting measures and working closely with Gov. Christie to root out corruption and explore privatization options, Corbett may yet drive the DRPA back from the bridge to nowhere.
Who says you can’t fight City Hall?
Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com
Readers of his column, "Freindly Fire," hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller "Catastrophe."
Freind, whose column appears nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a guest commentator on Philadelphia-area talk radio shows, and makes numerous other television and radio appearances, most notably on FOX. He can be reached at [email protected]