Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

What Does the County
Board of Legislators Do?

As part of our series on how local corporations, organizations, and government agencies are addressing the tightening economic and ecological
problems facing our community, The Guardian asked the Westchester Board of Legislators what steps they were taking. We wanted to know if the Board setting a good example for our County and local residents to follow?

The Guardian attended a recent meeting of the Board on May 27, and spoke with several members about the issues they are addressing on behalf of local residents.

The agenda for the May 27th meeting listed eighty items, from commission reports to proposed legislation to County Board and Commission appointments. However, over half of the Board’s agenda for this meeting consisted of appointments: six reappointments to the County’s Airport Advisory Board, six reappointments to the County’s Hispanic Advisory Board, six reappointments and one new appointment to the County’s Council for Seniors, two reappointments each to the Human Rights Commission, the Domestic Violence Council, as well as the Electrical Licensing Board, three reappointments to the Fire Advisory Board, five reappointments to the Youth Board, and one reappointment each to the Board Of Plumbing Examiners, the Emergency Medical Services Advisory Board, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the Professional Prequalification Board, the Traffic Safety Board, the Transportation Board, the African American Advisory Board, and the Board of Ethics. Only two of the appointments on the Board’s agenda were not for other boards and commissions – appointing the Chief Information Officer for Westchester County and reappointing the Commissioner for the Department of Social Services.

Almost all of the appointments, both to County jobs and to the boards and commissions, were for individuals proposed by the County Executive’s Office. Only one appointment, for two members to the Fish and Wildlife Board, was actually initiated by a member of the Board Of Legislators. Therefore, half of the issues before the County Board at this meeting were to approve selections submitted by the County Executive’s Office.

Of the forty-five appointments on the Board’s agenda, only one of those appointments was briefly discussed at the meeting in our presence. Many of the other appointments had been on the Board’s agenda for months – some dating as far back as January of this year. Not only was half of the Board’s official agenda devoted to appointments to other boards, but they are appointments that had already been selected by the County Executive’s Of-fice, and had languished, in some cases, for months.

Political scientists argue that this process represents the checks and balances of government. However, Westchester County now has the distinction of having the highest property taxes in the nation. Therefore, local taxpayers could reasonably argue that the existence of all of these commissions, boards, and councils, and the duplicate levels of approvals and multiple meetings needed to adopt the plethora of these appointments, cost far more than what county residents can afford.

The other thirty-five items on the agenda were a mixed bag of issues. Of the total, fifteen merely addressed correspondence from other sources. One board member, George Oros, submitted correspondence “requesting the Board use the New York State Penal Law with regard to the issuance of bad checks as a guide to establish a Westchester County Law”.

Despite the fact that the New York State laws governing this issue would render any county law moot and superfluous, this item has been on the Board’s official agenda since March. Some of the correspondence before the Board came from constituents and local groups – such
as the North White Plains Fire Company, with regard to tax credits for local volunteer firefighters. And some correspondence came
from the Board itself – such as the request from the Committee on Legislation for prompt action on a proposed countywide property revaluation.

Ironically, that item has been on the Board’s agenda since May 5th. Given that the Board is simultaneously considering the establishment of
a Westchester County Property Valuation Commission, and other boards and commissions are awaiting appointments for several
months, the request for “prompt” action here may need to be defined.

However, the remainder of the issues before the Board did address serious concerns of County residents. In response to the floods in Mamaroneck last year, the Board was seeking to establish a Drainage and Flood Management District and Agency. The Board has addressed
other flooding and storm-water issues before. In 2006 it adopted an intermunicipal agreement with New York City for a watershed management plan for the Bronx River.

The Board is also currently proposing developing a “silver alert” system for missing senior citizens, similar to the Amber alerts for missing children. As The Guardian noted in December, 2007, the number of individuals with memory-related problems in our area is dramatically increasing as our population ages.

On March 17, the Board’s Committee on Environment and Energy considered a proposal by the County Executive to “establish a program to allow reimbursement for pumpout and inspection of septic systems”. That proposal was discussed at the May 27th meeting. The Board
is proposing setting aside $1,099,000 per year for the next four years for reimbursements to local owners of specific properties for routine
septage removal and inspection services. Legislator Judith Myers noted that “residents who have septics can no longer say they are getting nothing from their sewer taxes.” The Environment and Energy Committee noted that the program will also address properties with failed septic systems.

Thomas Abinanti, the chair of the Environment and Energy Committee, provided The Guardian with a list of the issues the committee is currently addressing. These issues include:

• Motor Vehicle Idling Law – addresses both environmental and energy issues by limiting idling time of motor vehicles.
• Lawn Fertilizer Application and Sale – to establish regulations for lawn fertilizer application and sale.
• Green Building Requirements – require certain county public works projects to conform to green building requirements.
• Plastic Bags Recycling Program – proposed law to establish an at-store recycling program for plastic bags.

However, like the Board of Legislator’s Agenda, many of the items referred by the Environment and Energy Committee, on their recent report, were correspondence and newspaper articles. Under the caption of “Flooding”, the committee forwarded an article entitled “
Counties Worry About Funding For Stormwater Cleanup.” Yet the Committee noted in its report for the 2006 – 2007 term that it had already “approved legislation to accept New York State grant monies” for its stormwater programs, indicating no such funding difficulties. Of the forty items on the Committee’s active list for May, 2008, over 20 items were either correspondence, newspaper articles, or copies of reports or resolutions from local municipalities or agencies.

Given the ongoing scrutiny of the financial affairs of the County Board of Legislators, it is reasonable for local residents to ask if he Board
should be spending time forwarding correspondence and reapproving appointments selected by the County Executive or proposing legislation that is better addressed, or even already addressed, at the state level.

Does Westchester County really need to spend time and money to enact a local law to “prohibit the sale of shark n soup and other shark-derived products” as proposed by Mr. Abinanti, when issues concerning these products are handled at the Federal level by the Food and Drug Administration?

Do we need additional laws at the county level “prohibiting, and establishing fines for, hosting, allowing, entertaining, organizing, permitting,
or suffering a party, gathering or event where minors are present and alcoholic beverages are being consumed by a minor” as proposed by both James Maisano and Vito Pinto when New York State already has laws governing alcohol and minors?

New York State has 62 counties – do we really want 62 different laws on each and every legal issue? If so, then what do we need Albany for? Should Westchester County be making any laws at all? In the kick-off of this series of articles, The Guardian asked “What Sacrifices Our Leaders Should Be Making”, reasoning that local residents should not be making sacrifices to deal with the energy, environmental, and economic issues facing our communities, if the leaders in our midst were not doing likewise. Most local residents make extreme sacrifices to pay the extraordinarily high level of local property taxes; taxes that are used to pay the salaries of county employees, including the Board of Legislators and their staff.

Given the high level of our local property taxes, one of the issues the Board should be addressing is its own existence. Does Westchester County really need 17 legislators? Can that number be cut in at least half and the support staff and office space reduced accordingly? Before any issues are addressed by the Board, shouldn’t they be reviewed to determine if they are already covered by other state and federal laws?

Even the issue of the “silver alert” system could be handled by one of the County’s Albany representatives so that it could be established statewide using the same system already in place for the Amber alerts? Recent events have also revealed that a member of the Board’s support staff charged considerable personal expenses to the county and its taxpayers. This development demonstrates a disturbing lack of internal controls by both the Board and the County government.

Where were the County auditors? Why did no one perform this basic audit of the Board and its staff? Every major business and organization
reviews the expense reports of their personnel in detail before they are reimbursed in accordance with Federal laws, notably Sarbanes-Oxley.
In addition, businesses and organizations are also required to conduct regular audits of their finances, including their expense reimbursements to check for fraud, collusion, and plain stupidity. Yet the Board of Legislator’s employee’s expense reports were allegedly submitted without proper documentation. How can an expense report for a County employee be approved without receipts and supporting documentation justifying the expenses as necessary and reasonable?

And if those expenses are approved within one branch of our County government, why isn’t another branch, like the financial department within the County Executive’s Office, reviewing and auditing those reimbursements? Where are the “Checks and Balances” (what auditors refer to as “internal controls”)? If the Board of Legislators has to approve the appointments of the County Executive as a double-check of
powers, then why isn’t the County Executive double-checking the Board’s spending of our tax dollars?

The Guardian is currently attempting to uncover exactly how the taxdollars of local residents are accounted for at all levels of our county government. On May 14th, we made a Freedom of Information (FOIL) request to the County’s Budget Office for copies of all expense reports and budgets for all department heads. Despite New York State laws that state that all such requests must be acknowledged within
5 business days, The Guardian has yet to receive such an acknowledgement of our request from the County.

Why? What else is the County covering-up? What else don’t they want the taxpayers to see? How many other county employees are charging personal expenses to the taxpayers, or using county equipment and resources for their personal needs? And, who is looking out for the hard-earned tax dollars of local residents? If non-business expenses can get approved and reimbursed by the County, it raises the question of what else is going on. Are there “no-show employees” on the books? Do county employees have conflicts-of-interest with organizations/
individuals they are doing official business with? Are county employees receiving or awarding kickbacks, gifts, or other benefits as a result of their of-ficial positions?

The Guardian is therefore expanding the scope of this series of articles to go beyond the environmental, energy, and economic issues we initially raised to include these questions. We will now expand our FOIL request to Westchester County government to include requests for copies of all recent audit reports.

The focus of this series will be the same: why should local residents have to struggle with their finances, rising gas prices and lowering property values, local environmental and flooding concerns, and conserving energy, if none of our leaders (in business, government) are doing likewise? Why should local residents have to struggle just to support “business as usual” from our leaders?

No comments:

About Me