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NFTA commissioners grill chair over executive pay raises

The business of running buses, subways and airports usually ranks as a staid affair for commissioners of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

But not on Thursday as Commissioner Anthony J. Baynes launched a series of blistering questions surrounding pay raises given top authority staff late last year, forcing Chairwoman Sister Denise A. Roche to defend the process and accept responsibility.

“You are all exonerated,” Roche, the retired president of D’Youville College, told fellow board members. “I was the one who did it.”

Baynes’ questions stemmed from a February story in The Buffalo News reporting Roche had ordered significant pay raises for Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel and two others, raising the ire of the Cuomo administration. The News subsequently reported on March 31 that Minkel, General Counsel David J. State and Chief Financial Officer John T. Cox wrote checks totaling $25,296 to reimburse the authority after a collective decision that the raises were inappropriate when the state was facing serious financial challenges.

On Thursday, Baynes voiced his opposition to the entire process, bringing the issue into the public domain for the first time at a meeting and indicating constituents had accused him of not being honest after reading about the raises. He said the raises were higher than the average salary of some NFTA workers.

“How do you justify that is my point,” he said, adding he has been forced to explain raises that were ordered without board discussion through the prerogative of the chairwoman.

“Every board I have ever served on has a compensation committee,” he said. “This is the only one that doesn’t.”

Roche, Minkel and Commissioner Adam W. Perry all said Thursday that the raises did not approach the approximate 27 percent figure recommended by a firm studying NFTA salaries and reported by The News. That marked the first time the authority addressed the exact figures, refusing previous requests to discuss the issue in detail, though Roche later said on Thursday she was unable to provide exact amounts.

Perry said the raises amounted to about half what was recommended by the firm hired by the authority, though Commissioner Peter G. Demakos said he understood them to be retroactive.

“The chair authorized the raise and it was retroactive,” Perry said.

“We never knew that until just now,” Baynes answered.

But Roche and Minkel emphasized at the meeting that they took immediate steps to decline the raises after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s transportation advisers expressed their opposition.

“It was returned the very next day,” Minkel said of the raise that would have increased her current salary of $208,000.

NFTA executives got big raises - then returned the money

Roche added that in a conversation with Minkel, they decided raises should not be issued. And she has maintained in previous public statements that NFTA staff had received no raises, though The News obtained through a Freedom of Information request copies of the reimbursement checks to the authority from Minkel, State and Cox.

Though Roche declined to address the issue after the meeting, NFTA spokeswoman Helen Tederous said in March that the chairwoman’s February statement 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 March.

Still, other NFTA commissioners also raised questions on Thursday. Demakos said while his concerns did not take away from the job performance of Minkel and her team, the process resulted in problems of “perception.”

“It cast a shadow and it’s unfortunate it ended up this way,” he said, adding that although he recognized Roche’s ability to grant raises, he would prefer board discussion.

“It’s always been the consensus of the board since I’ve been here and this was a pretty major decision,” he said.

Commissioner Michael P. Hughes also addressed how the raises were viewed by the public.

“Certainly, the perception has taken over that the board voted on it,” he said. “That’s the key issue.”

And Commissioner LaVonne E. Ansari asked if the board could devise a “better way” to handle executive pay.

“We should review how we approve executive salaries,” she said.

The NFTA board did not vote on but supported a staff proposal late last summer for an authoritywide compensation study at a cost of $5,000, according to Tederous. The resulting report showed NFTA compensation for its executive director was 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 the 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.

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