By Christie Duffy
When Port Authority Chairman John Degnan agreed to sit down for an interview, we planned to discuss overtime at the agency — $192 million has been paid out in the first nine months of this year — and a complaint for the FAA to investigate activities at Newark Airport.
But the conversation naturally progressed into the biggest issue facing the Port Authority — the federal investigation into the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
He said, “There are people with more resources and more current law enforcement techniques than I am who are investigating those incidents. The last thing I want to do is to any in anyway obstruct or interfere with those investigations. So frankly, I have been hands off.”
“When Gov. Christie asked me to take this job, he said, ‘Get it off my worry list. Go up to the Port Authority, determine what you think is wrong, then try to fix it and come back and ask me if you need help.’ And that’s why I took the job,” Degnan said.
Degnan is new to the Port Authority. He replaced chairman David Samson five months ago. Samson resigned in the aftermath of the GWB scandal and allegations that he cast votes as chairman that would benefit his private law firm.
With Degnan at the helm, he is promising greater transparency at the Port Authority than ever before. Case in point — he calls the Port Authority’s overtime issue unacceptable. The Authority paid out nearly $200 million so far this year. Half of it went to Port Authority Police.
Degnan said, “There are lots of reasons why people in 2009 failed to project what needs for OT would be and decided wrongly to use overtime rather than full-time positions. They were wrong. There are provisions with the four contracts of police unions that make it difficult to manage OT. For example, a detective or a lieutenant who is moved from everyday assignment to another assignment gets four hours a day of OT simply because he’s not working in the area he normally works in. That’s ridiculous.”
So if a police officer is assigned to a post they don’t normally work in, even if it’s within their eight-hour day, they’re paid OT just because they’re in a different location?
“This is a provision that applies in the contracts of the lieutenants and the sergeants,” Degnan said.
It would appear there is a gap from 2009 to 2014 where there was no hiring of police officers. Why did the Port Authority allow that gap to happen and OT to aggregate in the police department for such a long period of time?
“In 2009 they graduated 303 officers from the Police Academy. At the time the folks managing the Port Authority thought that they provide excess capacity that would last for several years. What happened after 2009 though was the World Trade Center site became more construction oriented and needed more security. Now it needs even more security. We did marine patrols around JFK Airport to ensure the perimeter protection. We started patrols on the GWB because we had so many suicides there that we needed to have ore active police presence there. There are lots of different reasons why the people in 2009 failed to project correctly. But the increasing needs for police presence would be. It was decided that it would be better to use overtime and rather than put on expensive full time positions that might expand to do work and not be able to contract when that work goes away. They were wrong,” said Degnan.
Degnan says those provisions will be difficult to pull out of police contracts but it’s something the Port Authority will have to try and do if they want to decrease overtime payouts. The Port Authority did hire over 400 new police officers this year and they have plans to recruit 150 more in 2015.