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NFTA executives got big raises - then returned the money

It turns out, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s top three executives got big pay raises after all before returning the money, according to documents obtained by The Buffalo News through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel, General Counsel David J. State and Chief Financial Officer John T. Cox in late December wrote checks to the authority or voided checks totaling $25,296 to return the raises, the documents show.

The reimbursements to the authority appear to contradict February statements from the NFTA chairwoman, Sister Denise A. Roche, who said none of the executive staff had received raises.

“Senior staff at the NFTA have not received a raise,” Roche said then. “Their compensation has been frozen for the past two years.”

Sources previously told The News that the raises were quietly ordered by the chairwoman.

The News reported at the time that a source familiar with the situation said the Cuomo administration had deemed the raises – all around 27 percent – as “inappropriate considering the authority’s and the state’s finances.”

The documents show the executives received raises and then returned them, according to a memo Minkel wrote to Roche on Dec. 29.

“In light of the recent New York State fiscal concerns that have been reported, the Officers of the NFTA, including the Executive Director, General Counsel and the Chief Financial Officer are declining the most recent recommended salary increases,” Minkel wrote. “We will not be accepting the increase and we have already returned payments made as a result of this recent salary increase. I wish to thank you for your support and understanding.”

Albany rejects raises of nearly 27 percent for 3 NFTA executives

Roche in February refused to discuss whether she took any steps to implement raises, if Albany voiced objections, or whether top staff had reimbursed the authority for any enacted salary hikes. Although NFTA salaries are public under New York State law, Roche said she considered the information a “personnel” matter and would not answer questions about raises.

“If it’s public information, fine,” she said then. “But not from me.”

The documents indicate Minkel received a $55,000 raise – 26.4 percent – in December, which would have hiked her salary from $208,000 to $262,825 had she kept the pay increase. State’s raise would have brought him from $152,000 to $193,961 or 27.6 percent, and Cox's pay would have risen from $130,000 to $165,000 or 26.9 percent. Minkel’s raise represented an almost $93,000 increase above when she was hired at $170,000 more than seven years ago.

Copies of checks, also obtained through the Freedom of Information request, show that Minkel returned $12,021.58 to the authority, while Cox returned $4,202.81, to cover the time after the raises were enacted. State voided an authority check for $9,071.67. All took their action on Dec. 29.

NFTA spokeswoman Helen Tederous said Roche was out of town and unable to comment. But Tederous also said the chairwoman’s February remarks referred to the end result in which no raises were enacted.

“Sister referred to the end of the process, in which no one actually received a pay raise,” Tederous said.

In February, Roche said she agreed that because of the state’s budget challenges this year, “it would be inappropriate to make changes right now.”

The raises were not publicly disclosed in December when they were enacted. Sources also told The News at the time that no board of commissioners vote approved the pay raises, but that the chairwoman was empowered to implement them. Roche cited concerns about protecting the secrecy of executive sessions, however, when refusing to discuss the process leading to the raises.

Though The News never asked about anything discussed in executive session, Tederous said Wednesday the chairwoman – the retired president of D’Youville College – remains concerned about violating executive session secrecy.

The NFTA board did not vote on but supported a staff proposal late last summer for an authority-wide compensation study at a cost of $5,000, according to Tederous. The resulting report showed NFTA compensation for its executive director between the 25th and 50th percentile of authorities operating surface systems or airports.

Citing the relatively low compensation ranking compared to other authorities, the study recommended NFTA should increase its salaries. It noted that Minkel, State and Cox run a multimodal operation comprised of bus, rail, two airports, and police and fire departments.

“All three positions require the individuals in the position to man areas of knowledge and perform executive functions for two sectors, effectively managing a mid-sized public transit agency and a mid-sized airport authority simultaneously,” the report said.

It cited last summer’s hiring of a former General Electric executive at $320,000 to run Boston’s much larger Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

“These adjustments will move the authority into a more competitive position in the market of skilled labor for all three positions,” the report added, “and improve the probability that the authority would retain high-skilled individuals in these strategically critical positions.”

NFTA officials also point out that Minkel’s current $208,000 salary ranks below other upstate systems even while she runs much more extensive operations. They point to CEO salaries of $357,000 in Syracuse, $257,000 in Rochester, and $216,000 in Albany.

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