The following was issued recently by Republican candidates for county legislature Terrence Murphy of Yorktown, Peter Michaelis of Bedford and David Gelfarb of Rye Brook.
A devastating state audit of spending practices, internal controls and procedures in the town of Yorktown has some county legislative candidates calling for State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to conduct a similar audit of the Westchester County Board of Legislators (BOL).
Standing in front of Yorktown’s Town Hall, which was the center of the recent audit investigation, Yorktown Councilman Dr. Terrence Murphy (R-4th District) and other county legislator candidates from across Westchester including Peter Michaelis (R-2nd District), and David Gelfarb (R-6th District) formally requested the audit today, citing the lax accountability by the Board of Legislators over the past few years.
The candidates expressed their concern over the failure of the BOL to publicly disclose information, as is done in other counties and state government, relative to member and staff travel, perks, and expenses. Citing a July 31st article by the Journal News, “Westchester lawmakers get rare perk of free meals, spend $20G on travel,” the candidates noted that press Freedom of Information Law requests found that in 2010, the BOL billed taxpayers for more than $12,600 for catered meals, $20,156 for travel, and $12,089 on BlackBerries, more than double the previous year.
“The last time I checked my employees are bringing their own lunch to work,” Dr. Murphy said. “When middle class families across Westchester are struggling to make ends meet its good to know the Board of Legislators cares more about their stomachs than our pockets. The time for irresponsible government is officially over. We deserve better than this and demand the state comptroller’s office look into the Board of Legislator’s spending.”
In 2010, legislative staffers rang up a $29,749 taxpayer funded tab on staff perks including travel and cell phones. A 2008 probe of the BOL and then senior BOL aide Gary Kriss made by the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office found dubious purchases and controversial practices similar to those found by the comptroller in Yorktown’s recent audit. The candidates say these recent media findings leave doubt that BOL practices have been properly addressed and corrected.
“Before my first day on the job in Yorktown town hall in 2010, I had heard of a number of questionable actions taken by town officials with ulterior motives,” Dr. Murphy said. “Consequently, we asked the state comptroller’s office to come in and open an investigation into these matters. It is under these same circumstances that I and the other candidates here today are calling on the state comptroller’s office to do the same to the County Board of Legislators.”
Although the Board of Legislators budgets for an outside audit of the entire County, unlike in other Counties, the results are not made available on the internet. Instead, the Executive Summary, buried within the County’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), only states that the outside audit is “not for the purpose of expressing an opinion on the effectiveness of the County’s internal control over financial reporting.”
“Accordingly, we express no such opinion” over the Board’s spending practices and internal controls, notes an auditor with O’Connor, Davies, Munns & Dobbins LLP, in the 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 annual financial statements. Such lack of oversight of the BOL provides all the more reason for an outside, independent audit by the State Comptroller, Michaelis said.
“This is about transparency and accountability,” he said. “Under Majority Leader Pete Harckham’s reign, the Board of Legislators has freeloaded on the taxpayer dime for years and nobody has been the wiser. Harckham has the responsibility to look after his own Democrat caucus and the legislative body which he leads. And from what we now know, the chickens have been ruling the hen house. What the Journal News has uncovered may very well be the tip of the iceberg. We need an independent audit now that will objectively report on how taxpayers money is being spent.”
According to the State Comptroller’s website, local government entities that have been authorized to issue debt to finance deficits or recent legislation are subject to state audits. The BOL qualifies, as last year alone it approved an additional 17% in new debt while continuing to deplete the general fund in place of spending cuts. The County’s 2010 CAFR states that “the County’s long-term bond debt increased by $124,451,935 (17.6 percent) during 2010,” after the BOL enacted additional spending and bonding, overriding a veto by the County Executive.
Geldfarb, Murphy, and Michaelis say that these actions were a political move by the BOL supermajority, made in part to provide an artificial extra 1% tax cut, and were a major a contributing factor in the County’s recent bond rating outlook downgrade, according to Moody’s Investor Services.
While authorizing the borrowing during the budget, the BOL also authorized itself an extra increase of $500,000 for 2011, which was vetoed by the County Executive. It was “something (the) Honorable Board may want to reconsider in view of the fact that nearly every other department of County government has a year to year reduction in County expenditure in the proposed budget,” according to Veto Message #3776 of 2011, though the BOL supermajority later overrode the veto on a party line vote and transferred in the $500k.
“The Board of Legislators needs to finally acknowledge that the credit card is maxed out,” Dr. Murphy said. “Middle class families in Westchester County cannot continue to shoulder the burden of their out of control spending. They must be held accountable for these decisions and the state comptroller’s audit will ensure all business was conducted in an appropriate manner. Until that time the taxpayers of Westchester County will refuse to allow this gang of thieves to dip into our pockets. I never let a bully take my lunch money when I was in school and I sure won’t let it happen now.”
Murphy and his colleagues are asking Westchester residents to speak out and put pressure on their legislative leaders by signing a countywide petition at www.auditwestchester.com, which requests that the Comptroller’s Division of Local Government and School Accountability immediately perform an independent and comprehensive audit of the spending practices, internal controls, and procedures of the Westchester County Board of Legislators.
“As $40,000 in frivolous spending on themselves for food, blackberries and unnecessary travel demonstrates, the Westchester Legislature’s super majority fails to appreciate both the need to: a) control spending and b) set an example for other levels of government during a time of serious challenges for our county and our state,” Geldfarb said. “I am running to put my experience with the Town of Rye to work in ending this pattern of wasteful spending that has led to our unfortunate distinction as the highest taxed county in the nation.”