Protesters say the M.T.A. has money for pay and service increases, and the M.T.A. begs to differ

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Joe Lhota. (Dana Rubinstein)
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Three Occupy Wall Street protestors joined union workers at Wednesday's morning's M.T.A. board meeting, urging the cash-strapped authority that oversees New York City mass transit to tap into a $500 million retiree fund in order to restore service cuts, rehire laid-off workers and underwrite wage hikes.

"The transit workers serve the 99 percent," said Tony Murphy, from "Occupy for Jobs," in a call-and-response "mic check" in the M.T.A.'s fifth-floor Madison Avenue boardroom. "It is beyond ludicrous for the M.T.A. to claim a retirees fund as an excuse to deny justice to the transit workers."

The Transport Workers Union is currently in negotiations with the M.T.A. over a new contract, which, depending on its outcome, could imperil the authority's ability to serve its capital program debt.

The two remain far apart, at least publicly, with the M.T.A. demanding a three-year wage freeze, and the union demanding cost-of-living increases. The union also wants to tap into an M.T.A. retiree health care fund designed to offset future shortfalls, known as GASB 45, which now holds some $500 million.

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Eleven TWU workers spoke at today's board meeting, and they spoke mostly about GASB.

"Enough is enough," said Maurice Jenkins, vice president of the local's station department. "Utilize the GASB funds."

"You guys have the money and you know you do," said Christine Williams, a station agent who works the night shift. "Put it to the people of New York and rehire the station agents, now!"

During a question-and-answer session with reporters following the board meeting, newly installed chairman Joe Lhota said, "I respectfully disagree with them."

"We are doing everything we can to work with the fragile budget conditions that we have," said Lhota. "Their reference to money that's squired away to pay for retiree health care—we have a $13.2 billion unfunded liability, of which we have put against it $470 million. It's nowhere near enough. It's a problem, and we need to continue to fund the funds so that we can make sure that the retiree benefits are there when the retirees of the M.T.A. need it."

Board member Allen Cappelli said he sympathizes with the union and would like to restore some service cuts, but said this is not the way to do it, "because you're essentially borrowing money that actuarially you're told that you need to have to protect people's benefits in the future."

"So it's not a fiscally prudent thing to do," he said. "It's the kind of practice that gets government agencies into trouble. And then if you run into a crisis and you don't have the money, then you've got to raise fairs and cut services, and we're trying to avoid that kind of instability."