Port Authority Pushes Back on Toll Perks Lawsuit

"This case is offensive to me," said Port Authority Executive Director

By Samantha Henry
|  Thursday, Jan 5, 2012  |  Updated 3:46 PM EDT
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Port Authority Pushes Back on Toll Perks Lawsuit

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The head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on Thursday criticized a pair of lawsuits recently filed by retirees seeking to restore free E-ZPass benefits.

Executive Director Patrick Foye said he had requested that New York and New Jersey tax authorities investigate whether the retirees owed taxes, interest and penalties on the free benefits they received until the program was discontinued last year.

"This case, which involves Port Authority pensioners suing to enjoy a toll-free retirement, is offensive to me," Foye said in a statement.

Using a free E-ZPass daily would amount to about $2,000 in tax-free benefits a year, Foye argued, while a full-paying commuter would pay the same $2,000 in after-tax dollars.

New York Department of Taxation and Finance spokesman Ed Walsh said the agency had been asked to look into it. A spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Taxation did not immediately comment on whether they had been contacted by Port Authority officials.

Two former Port Authority police officers filed separate suits in December to restore the free E-ZPass and parking privileges they claimed they were promised or contractually owed.

One of them, Thomas Westfield, a retired Port Authority detective sergeant, said he filed the suit himself but is seeking class-action status on behalf of more than 400 fellow Port Authority retirees who had also filed notices of claim to take legal action over the issue.

"I think that's ludicrous, and it smacks of retaliation," Westfield said of Foye's statement, adding that Foye had only been head of the agency for a few months.

"I think Mr. Foye should get his feet wet in the Port Authority, and find out what transpired, before he comments. If it's an attempt to get us to back down — I'm not going to back down," Westfield said.

Michael Shuhala, a retired Port Authority police detective who is an attorney and a municipal court judge in Cliffside Park, filed a lawsuit Dec. 30 on behalf of himself, claiming the privileges were revoked without due process. He did not return a call for comment Thursday, but told The Associated Press on Wednesday that those who spent their careers working in law enforcement for the agency had earned the benefits.

The Port Authority eliminated free toll privileges in 2010 after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie criticized toll-payer-funded perks. The changes, which took effect Jan. 1, 2011, applied to non-revenue producing E-ZPasses for agency commissioners, retirees and non-represented employees hired after the 9/11 attacks. The agency said the move would save the agency about $1.5 million a year.

Those employed with the agency on or before Sept. 11, 2001 continue to receive free E-ZPass tolls for commuting purposes only. Those perks were extended to staffers displaced by the Sept. 11 attacks, forcing them to commute to and from different locations than the Port Authority's World Trade Center headquarters. The perk is scheduled to end when the Port Authority re-establishes its headquarters at the World Trade Center site in 2014.

Marked emergency vehicles and the spouses of Port Authority employees killed in the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and 2011 continue to receive the free E-ZPass benefit, according to the agency.

The Port Authority estimates it has about 1,900 retired employees.

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