Apr 29, 2011
Atlantic Beach Crossing an Expensive Journey
BY SUSAN VARGHESE
A total of $3,565,000 is spent on salaries, employee benefits, retirement, and payroll taxes, while $260,000 is what’s being spent on bridge inspection, and repairs and maintenance.
The Nassau County Bridge Authority (NCBA) operates the toll bridge and the money collected from the tolls is the main source of revenue. They have 47 employees, but Vincent Grasso, manager at the NBCA noted that they have been cutting employees for the past four years to manage finances. There used to be over 100 employees. In 2008 there were 67, and this year there are 47, according to Grasso. “Through improved management and automation we’ve automated 70 percent of our toll operation. We’ve cut staff more than 30 percent in the last four years, and that’s how we’ve managed our costs.”
The NCBA spends $2 million in salaries without benefits, retirement, or taxes for four toll supervisors, one toll plaza manager, seven full time toll collectors, 14 part time collectors, one part time attorney, three people in management, two full time cashiers, one part-time cashier, one IT person, seven maintenance workers, and five bridge operators. In total there are 16 part time and 31 full time employees.
In relation to the amount appropriated to salaries, Grasso commented, “We’ve been audited by the State Authority budget office about three years ago, the State Comptroller’s office a year ago, and we’re audited by an outside auditing agency in Lawrence every year. There’s never been a finding or discrepancy. We think the facts are in our favor.”
The salary and benefits expenditures can also be attributed to increasing pension costs, Grasso explained. “Pension costs are expensive but you have to deal with them. You could argue and fight and howl at the moon, but the truth is our pension costs are probably going up about 60 percent this year, it is a function of the NYS Pension system, it falls on our back to fund that. We maintain a lot of wiggle room, there are things that pop up that villages don’t account for, they play it really safe and close to the bone, and they have something were there’s a $100,000 jump, and they have to get it from somewhere, and where do they get it from? Taxes. We don’t have the luxury of raising our rates whenever we want. We try and anticipate [the increasing costs].”
The NCBA was established to regulate the Atlantic Beach Bridge. The bridge first opened in 1927 and was operated by a private group, in 1945 the NCBA took over, and a new bridge was constructed for $9.5 million and opened to traffic in 1952.
There are currently three toll options, a $2 cash fare, a 20-trip card for $15 (which is about 75 cents a trip), and an annual decal for $135 (which is about ten cents a trip).
Five Towns resident, Rosine Schechter said, “ I do my nails in Long Beach, and I don’t like the tolls on the bridge. The $4 in their pocket would be better in mine.”
Grasso also added that while other governments are in trouble, their cost management has kept them afloat, “Other governments are going bankrupt; Nassau County is going bankrupt, New York State is in threat of fiscal instability, that’s not the case with the Nassau County Bridge Authority. We don’t take a single dime of taxpayer money. This is the only bridge that handles Atlantic Ocean commercial traffic to include oil tankers. If this channel were not open, Long Island wouldn’t get home heating oil.”
However, Grasso also asserted that getting rid of the tolls wouldn’t be a viable option. To eliminate the tolls would mean to lose the revenue that helps fund the over $4 million it takes to run the bridge, a cost which the taxpayers would then have to bear. In addition, even if Nassau County took over the bridge and the expenses were paid among taxpayers, it wouldn’t be a level playing field, asserted Grasso. “Considering that this largely a local bridge, people in Wantagh would wonder why would they have to pay so that people in Lawrence could have the convenience of getting to Long Beach faster. Or why do the people in Oyster Bay have to pay for the people in Woodmere to get to Long Beach faster? It’s the purest form of good government in that it’s essentially a pay-per-use thing. If you don’t use the bridge, you don’t pay for it.”
“In order to touch the tolls at all we have to send a letter asking the State Assembly to allow us to do it, they then do an audit of our financials and see if we need to do it. That’s a lengthy and expensive process. That’s why we only increase or change the tolls every ten years,” said Grasso.
Legal counsel to the Nassau County Bridge Authority, Steven Kaiser asserted that they have “zero” say in whether or not to eliminate the toll. “We’re a public authority created to operate that bridge. The cost of operating the bridge would fall to Nassau County. Instead of revenue from tolls, Nassau County would absorb the cost. They would disband the authority, which would also effect jobs.”
“You shouldn’t have to pay tolls at all. I don’t go to Atlantic Beach and I’m not planning to go there now,” voiced Sara Dons, a Five Towns resident.
Despite complaints from other Five Towns residents, Atlantic Beach Mayor Stephen Mahler said that unhappy residents, which he maintains are a very small group of people, “can go straight ahead to Rockaway or Long Beach — they invite day trippers.”
Options such as EZ pass have also been considered, Grasso noted, but since it’s a private company, “They can raise their fee at any time they want. We offer a prepaid decal instead. It would cost about a half million just to install EZ pass equipment in the bridge. That would need to be made up somewhere.”
Local resident Alrine Geller said, “It’s crazy for a little bridge. Even with what they charge, I go anyway because I have a beach pass.”
“The toll bridge is the lifeline to our community, the bridge is a leisure time for the people of The Five Towns…to them it’s fun and games. To us, it’s the whole ball of wax,” joked Mahler. “If there were no toll the truck traffic would triple. Everyone would see it as a new way to go to the City instead of going the long way,” Mahler stressed.
Nassau County Legislator Howard Kopel added, “There’s some considerable misconception. Some people think that all the money goes to paying the toll collectors and nothing else, when that’s just not true. It’s a pretty well run bridge. I’m not sure who’s right. I don’t think the county could afford to take over the maintenance of the bridge right now.”
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