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The “Audit” that Wasn’t an Audit

2 May

Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw took a break from his busy schedule visiting random cultural sites and eating lunches at various and sundry senior centers, and released an “audit” revealing $70,000 in expenditures over five years that Mr. Mychajliw doesn’t like. The new Republican majority in the legislature commissioned this “audit”, and the best anyone could do was to find about $14,000 per year in allegedly excessive spending each year between  2009 – 2013.

“Audit” gets scarequotes because it wasn’t an audit. Even Mychajliw’s office calls it what it was – a review. It was not subject to any of the requirements or restrictions necessary within an audit environment.

For a $1.1 billion operation, $14,000 per year isn’t that horrible. But don’t tell the Comptroller that.

The manner in which taxpayer dollars were spent is troubling. We are concerned by the blatant misuse of county funds. The lack of oversight on spending leaves us disheartened,” Mychajliw said in a statement announcing the release of the audit

That strong language is out of proportion with the actual findings. The findings showed some pretty mild incidents of  unnecessary and excessive spending, but no “blatant misuse” or some pervasive “lack of oversight”. When does Stefan’s campaign end?

Wasteful? There are a few items that could have been handled differently, but nothing excessive.  Take a look at the major findings.

The 45-page report details nearly $5,000 that the Legislature spent on personal items. These included expenditures for snacks that were provided to outside guests who were honored by legislators at their bimonthly meetings; flowers; a shoe rack and the cost to stock some district offices with toilet paper.

Here’s what Democratic minority chairwoman Betty Jean Grant said about the snacks:

…most the food was purchased for World War II, Korean, Vietnam and the current War Veterans who have served their Country and who are members of the Valor for Valor Committee I created to assist our veterans. The refreshment they consumed after the county hall meetings, were not nearly as expensive as some of the things they lost such as limbs and even the lives for those who did not make it back. Someone needs to be ashamed of this despicable show of narrow-mindedness.

And toilet paper. Toilet paper? Do you remember during the red/green budget fiasco of the last decade, when the county couldn’t afford to stock the bathrooms in the Rath Building with toilet paper, so Charmin donated a truck’s worth?  Setting aside for a moment whether district offices are necessary, if we’re going to have them, are we going to begrudge their bathrooms having county-funded toilet paper? What’s next? Toner? Paper?

The report also notes how the Legislature spent too much on toner for the printers it leased and how it continued to cover the cost of Internet access for one of the Democratic legislator’s district office nine months after it was destroyed by fire.

But better still is how Mychajliw’s release characterizes this:

The Legislature spent almost $5,000 for personal items like flowers, cakes, meals, shoe racks, toilet paper, stamps, potato chips, plastic utensils, tissues, cookies, even soil.

OMG EVEN SOIL!!1!

And if you still don’t think this was a wholly political play, regard this line from the exit conference section of the review:

During the Exit Conference, some concerns were addressed regarding the severity of some of these issues and the verbiage which was used in defining them. Due to this, verbiage in some instances within this report has been changed to more accurately reflect the issues found.

UPDATE: Did you catch this line? 

“I think the most important thing to note is the fact that the Legislature initially wanted us to look at just one year of spending,” Mychajliw said. “When we showed them what we found just over one year, they formally asked us to expand it to five years and go deeper.”

A correspondent notes that this comment is false.This letter from Legislator John Mills, dated February 18 specifically requests a five-year review. The Comptroller’s office’s review entrance letter is dated the same day (efficient!), and notes – ab initiothat the review will be for the 5 year period of Jan 1, 2009 to Dec 31, 2013.  So, the 5 year period was decided on day one, before any data had been compiled, transmitted, and well before any data had been reviewed. Indeed, none of the information was due until February 25th. Nobody ever “formally asked” anyone to “expand it to five years”. There exists no earlier letter asking for a one-year review.

I’ll grant you the internet access thing is, I suppose, “wasteful”, as is the retention of an official photographer – although the photographs are presented to recipients of various awards, and make these people feel appreciated.  But the review itself reveals that Time Warner is refunding the money. There is the matter of a 45-cent stamp for which a staffer was reimbursed three times. I offer that staffer my thoughts and prayers, as he or she works to repay that $0.90 debt to the county. This is petty within the literal meaning of that word, coming from the French petit or small.

We already know that honoring people is most of what the legislature accomplishes.  If you want to talk about wasteful spending, it’s can rationally be argued that having an Erie County Legislature is, itself, fundamentally wasteful; its ministerial, rote “functions” outweigh its discretionary ones.

To give you some perspective, here’s what I wrote about the toilet paper fiasco of ’05.

Charmin wants to donate a truck’s worth of Charmin to the Rath Building. George Holt has already allocated some of his member money to his brother’s son’s girlfriend’s shell company, which knows a guy who can get some toilet paper that fell off a truck. So, they don’t need Charmin.

Thankfully, that sort of intentional and pervasive George Holt/Chuck Swanick style corruption is long gone. So is member money.

This whole thing is a persuasive argument against the continuation of partisan elections for the legislature. If this had been in any way legitimate, it would have been undertaken without the “aha” confrontational tone. None of this stuff is a big, earth-shattering deal, and there is no evidence whatsoever of deliberate waste or wrongdoing. The excessive rhetoric in the review and its accompanying press materials belies the notion that this was an apolitical review of allegedly excessive spending.  It is, instead, a wholly political piece of campaign literature.

And you paid for it.

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