- A group of 78 employees at the South Jersey Transportation Authority collected average annual pay increases of 10.4 percent since 2007, including some with raises as high as $37,500 over the three-year period.
- Other nonunion officials with substantial pay increases have ties to Camden County Democrats, who have long been criticized for using the agency as a patronage den.
- The average toll collector at the SJTA earns more than those at some transportation authorities in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
A quarter of the South Jersey Transportation Authority’s full-time workforce has collected nearly half of the agency’s raises since 2007, averaging more than 10 percent in annual pay increases, while private-sector raises nationally averaged less than 3 percent.
Two overriding factors — a lucrative labor contract and political connections — have provided the group of 78 authority employees with dramatic pay increases, with many receiving $15,000 to $37,500 in raises and promotions since 2007.
The Press analyzed pay increases over three years for 291 full-time employees who have worked at the SJTA every year since 2007. Between 2007 and 2010, the total of those workers’ annual salaries increased by $2.6 million. Nearly half of those pay increases — 48 percent — went to the group of 78 employees, which make up 27 percent of the workers. The remaining 52 percent of pay increases was split by the other 213 workers in The Press’ analysis.
Today’s full-time SJTA work force numbers 332, but not all of those employees worked there in 2007.
Individual employees in that group of 78 received pay increases over the last three years at annual average rates of 6.6 percent to 22.4 percent. The annual average rate of increase for the 78 workers was 10.4 percent. For all other workers, it was only 3.6 percent.
Employees receiving the high raises include staff members and officials connected with Camden County Democrats and unionized workers whose labor contracts allow them to make more than transportation employees in metropolitan areas such as New York City.
The payroll spending came at a time when the nation was in its greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression and when more than 435,000 New Jersey workers have been unemployed. Those with jobs saw annual pay increases evaporate and their retirement accounts plunge in value. Private sector workers averaged 2.5 percent raises in 2008 and 1.3 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Compensation Survey.
SJTA pay raises were awarded as the agency reported that revenue was so tight it had to raise tolls by as much as 60 percent. Even with toll revenue growing by a third to more than $20 million, the authority sought to make even more money through advertising signs along the entire expressway and is contemplating new digital overhead signs that would flash advertising.
Bart Mueller, the authority’s executive director, said that the authority’s full-time workforce is down by 41 employees since he took the helm in 2007, with nonunion salaries reduced by about $750,000 and union salaries rising by about $1 million.
One of the biggest unions in the authority, Local 196 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, signed an agreement with the agency that went into effect in August 2007 — four months before the recession began — that has helped drive up salaries.
Contracts provide big raises
The contract for Local 196, which represents workers including auto-body repairmen, technicians and toll collectors, includes a pay scale for employees hired on or after July 31, 2003. The six years of steps starts employees at 60 percent of the negotiated pay rate. Then annual pay increases of 5 percent a year kick in for four years before rising to increases of 10 percent in the remaining two years.
The workers also receive annual raises negotiated by the union: 3 percent raises for 2007 and 2008 and 3.5 percent increases for 2009 and 2010. Both contracts run through most of 2011.
Pay levels for SJTA toll collectors, for example, are sharply higher than those in some areas. A toll collector employed by the Maryland Transportation Authority makes a starting salary of $25,239, according to the Maryland authority. Through promotions, a Maryland toll collector can reach different levels of employment that would boost pay to maximum base salary of $28,434.
A toll collector at SJTA who started at the authority in August 2007 would start at about $33,147, about $8,000 more than a new toll collector in Maryland. And under the SJTA’s pay scale, significant increases catapult toll collectors into a different salary range quickly.
For example, the SJTA hired a toll collector who lives in Atlantic County in September 2005. By 2007, he was making $37,319. But his union’s labor contract increased his salary by a cumulative 52 percent in the last three years, with an additional $21,586, according to SJTA records.
His current salary of $58,905 is not an anomaly at the SJTA. The authority’s accelerated raises have resulted in the average SJTA toll collector receiving $58,430, far more than most collectors at transportation authorities in other area states.
New York’s government consists of several transportation agencies, including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, the New York State Bridge Authority and the New York State Thruway Authority.
Payroll records show the average toll collector for the Bridge Authority makes $33,965 per year, $24,465 less than the SJTA’s average. The Thruway Authority’s average toll collector is paid $11,569 less than those from the SJTA.
Only the MTA has toll collectors with a higher average salary than the collectors with the SJTA, with bridge-and-tunnel officers making an average salary of just less than $70,000. However, toll collecting is only one of the officers’ duties. They are armed and function more as bridge police officers.
Toll collectors at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority also make far less than those at the SJTA. Figures provided by the Pennsylvania authority show the average toll collector is paid about $42,500, about $16,000 less than the average toll collector on the Atlantic City Expressway.
Union officials representing SJTA workers did not return repeated calls requesting comment.
Mueller said he’s been aware of the costs of toll collectors and hasn’t hired a full-time collector in three years. That has required the authority to take on more part-time collectors, Mueller said, but the authority is planning to begin privatizing the part-time collectors next year.
The executive director said the long-term plan is to do away with full-time toll collectors completely with the planned transformation to cashless tolls. The plan was to be implemented by the end of this year. Mueller now says he expects the change to occur by Memorial Day 2011.
“I’ve told them, ‘You will never have another contract here,’” Mueller said of the full-time toll collectors, currently numbering 36.
However, authority officials had previously told The Press that the change would not result in unemployed toll collectors. Instead, the authority would cross-train the employees to perform other duties.
High raises have also been given to nonunion employees, mostly through promotions of workers connected to Camden County Democrats. Republicans have charged the SJTA is a patronage den for Democrats tied to Camden County.
Few SJTA employees have experienced a greater climb up the administrative ladder than Dennis Culnan Jr., whose father is a political ally and opposition researcher for George Norcross III, the behind-the-scenes leader of the Camden County Democratic Party. Since 2005, Culnan’s salary has nearly doubled from $69,662 to $134,398.
Hired in 2002, Culnan became the authority’s first chief-of-staff in 2007 and has since been promoted as the authority’s deputy executive director, with a pay increase of $37,500 annually. His career path at the authority has mirrored many of the promotions given to Mueller, a former Camden County surrogate, an elected judicial officer.
When Mueller went from heading electronic toll collections to deputy director, it was Culnan who replaced him. After Mueller became executive director in 2007, Culnan became deputy director.
The authority hired Stephen Dougherty to replace Culnan as the authority’s chief of staff. Dougherty previously served as a congressional staffer for U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-1st, a district that includes parts of Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties. Dougherty is paid $90,114.
Authority officials confirmed that Culnan recently decided to go back to school and is taking a new and reduced role at the agency to accommodate his education. Sharon Gordon, the authority’s spokeswoman, declined to discuss what Culnan’s salary would be under the new position, director of business administration.
Jack David, a former Democratic councilman in Berlin Borough, Camden County, saw his salary as a safety manager rise from $48,313 in 2007 to more than $75,000, an increase of 55 percent. During those three years, David’s job title never changed, according to SJTA records.
David’s supervisor, Engineering and Operations Director Sam Donelson, said the records are inaccurate. He claimed that David’s title is currently “incident safety manager.” Donelson said the difference between safety manager and incident safety manager, besides $26,783 in salary, is that David took over operation of the Emergency Service Patrol Division.
“There’s always additional compensation for additional duties,” Mueller said.
The SJTA administration also promoted Jeff Michalowski, a former Township Council candidate in Medford Township, Burlington County, to serve as a temporary facilities manager at Atlantic City International Airport. As a result, he has been paid more than $16,500 in added salary since 2007. Michalowski, a Democrat, failed in his Medford campaign bid last year.
Mueller defended Culnan and credited him for managing the authority’s $1.9 million budget deficit this year, caused by a Spirit Airline strike and considerable costs to cope with the extreme snow storms last winter.
“He’s a good employee,” Mueller said. “That kid works his --- off for us and I think he gets treated unfairly because of somebody’s opinion of him.”
But Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, said the raises for politically connected individuals not only costs taxpayers, but prolongs a costly practice that is evident in various state agencies throughout the state.
“We are immediately going to go to work with the governor to see what we can do to stop this type of patronage,” said Polistina, who has met with Mueller previously about some of the authority’s employees and their Camden County connections.
Mueller spoke with frustration about Republican criticism regarding SJTA employment of some with Camden County ties, calling it a “red herring.”
“I’m a Camden County guy,” said Mueller, of Oaklyn, Camden County. “Why am I sullied because I’m from Camden County? This agency is in Atlantic County, but we service all six South Jersey counties.”
Republicans have been vocal opponents of the SJTA’s executive appointments since the Democrats took control of the Governor’s Office in 2001. The criticism has mostly centered on the authority’s connections with Norcross and Camden County, with complaints about whom the agency hires and where some funds are allocated.
GOP members desperately tried to stop Mueller from joining the SJTA in any capacity in 2003, charging he was not qualified to manage the E-ZPass toll system and was picked because of his ties to two prominent Camden County Democrats Norcross and Frank Spencer, a union leader and then-SJTA chairman.
Mueller at the time was Camden County’s parks director. He formerly served as Camden County’s surrogate, resigning from office in 2000 after some of his employees broke the law by working on former Gov. Jim Florio’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign.
Mueller eventually was hired to run the E-ZPass toll system for the Atlantic City Expressway, which the SJTA oversees. He became the SJTA’s deputy director in May 2005 and took the authority’s helm at the start of 2007.
Republicans also vehemently fought against the authority’s pursuit of plans to operate a parking garage at Cooper University Hospital in Camden in 2005, at one point considering offering $25 million in funding for the garage. Norcross is currently the chairman of Cooper’s board of trustees.
“These issues come and go, but we’re not going to get caught in it,” Mueller said. “There are people that aren’t relevant right now that want to be relevant. And I’m not going to get caught up in an election year. That dog doesn’t hunt.”
Staff writer Juliet Fletcher contributed to this report.
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WHAT IS THE SJTA?
Formed in 1991, The South Jersey Transportation Authority is the successor to the New Jersey Expressway Authority and the Atlantic County Transportation Authority. The purpose of the authority, according to its charter, is ‘to coordinate South Jersey's transportation system including addressing the highway network, aviation facilities and the transportation problems of Atlantic County.’ Its primary focus is the Atlantic City Expressway and Atlantic City International Airport as well as improving economic development through transportation projects in the six southernmost counties of New Jersey.
SJTA FULL-TIME PAYROLL TOTALS
TOP FIVE PAY INCREASES SINCE 2007
Dennis Culnan Jr.
Title: deputy executive director
Total raise: $37,500*
Title: safety manager
Total raise: $26,782
Title: control technician
Total raise: $26,593
Total raise: $25,761*
Title: toll collector
Total raise: $21,586
Source: South Jersey Transportation Authority payroll records
*Raises the result of promotion