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Comptroller's office examining splitting canals from Thruway Move could avert increases in tolls

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said his office is studying whether to recommend the state's canal system be removed from the state Thruway Authority to avoid toll increases on the highway system.

"We're looking at that, and certainly if you're talking about getting back to core missions, that's one obvious [possibility]," the comptroller said of undoing a 1992 fiscal gimmick that shifted the costs of running the state waterways to the Thruway Authority.

DiNapoli's office recently began an audit to determine if higher Thruway tolls are needed.

Thruway officials have approved an increase in January averaging 10 percent, and plans call for 5 percent increases in each of the following two years.

Discounts for using the E-ZPass program would be cut in half.

DiNapoli said the audit would be completed within several weeks.

Thruway officials have said that running the canal system, which includes the Erie Canal, costs about $80 million annually. The toll increase is expected to bring in about $90 million in additional revenue that Thruway officials say is needed to help fund a multiple-year construction program along the highway system.

First Deputy Comptroller Mary Louise Mallick, however, said there are many fiscal issues involved in determining how much precisely goes from the Thruway Authority into paying for the operations of the canal system. The matter is among those being studied by DiNapoli's auditors, she said.

DiNapoli said his office is looking at all authorities in an attempt to get a handle on similar situations in which an agency's "core mission" has been expanded to other duties.

Such off-mission functions at the various agencies could cost billions of dollars, he estimated.

In a speech Thursday to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, DiNapoli outlined a series of proposals he says would improve the state's finances and the transparency of its budget process.

He called for a hard limit on the state's debt level, though he did not suggest a specific figure.

The comptroller, a Democrat, also asked for more public-friendly budget presentations by the governor's office and annual budgets that show the cash behind every appropriation.

He also said his office next spring will begin putting on its Internet site information on how all agencies spend public dollars -- from travel and salaries to heating costs.

DiNapoli said the changes "will help engage the public in the debate we must have about New York's future."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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