June 20, 2012

Turnpike to cut 20 toll collection positions

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Amid a busy week of soliciting public input on proposed toll increases, Maine Turnpike Authority officials said Wednesday that they plan to eliminate 20 positions as of January 2013.

Most of the positions are toll collection supervisors, MTA Executive Director Peter Mills said, and the collective layoffs will save a little more than $1 million on an annual budget of more than $130 million.

The cuts are part of an ongoing effort to streamline operations in the wake of a 22-year run by his predecessor, Paul Violette, that ended in financial scandal. Violette was convicted earlier this year of stealing several hundreds of thousands of dollars from the MTA over a multi-year period.

Since Mills has taken over, he has cut more than 10 percent from annual operating expenses and has refinanced some old debt to save the agency about $13 million. Still, he hasn’t been able to avoid proposing a toll increase to generate enough revenue to pay the turnpike’s annual debt and cover both capital maintenance costs and operating expenses. He and other MTA officials and board members are hosting public hearings this week on toll increase options.

Mills said the announced layoffs are unrelated to the proposed toll increase and were planned either way.

"These are changes that the turnpike needed to make, even if we were overflowing with money," he said Wednesday. "I use the analogy of, after World War II ended and soldiers came home, we still had all these generals we didn’t know what to do with. We just have too many supervisors."

The next hearing on the toll increases is at 6:30 p.m. tonight at Portland City Hall.

In addition to the recent cuts and the toll increase debate that is expected to last well into the summer, the MTA is mired in a union battle. Turnpike workers represented by the Maine State Employees Association recently filed a complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board alleging that turnpike officials bargained in bad faith during recent contract negotiations.

"After a year at the bargaining table, members of our bargaining team couldn’t reach a fair contract that we could bring back to our coworkers," MSEA’s chapter president Cal Paquet said in a statement.

Union members were most upset with cuts to health insurance and other benefits.

Mills said he didn’t want to talk about ongoing labor negotiations other than to say he’s doing everything he can to reduce expenses at the MTA.

"I’m just trying to bring labor costs in line with other public employees," he said.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:
erussell@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @PPHEricRussell
 

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