Thursday, December 4, 2008

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thurday, December 4, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

Time To Cut County’s Purse Strings?

The Guardian asked several community leaders to comment on the 2009 Capital and Operating Budgets recently submitted by County Executive Andrew Spano to the Westchester Board of Legislators for approval. Mr. Paul Feiner, the Town Supervisor for the Town of Greenburgh, and a co-founder of the newly developed citizens action group Rethinking Westchester Government, offered the following suggestions with respect to the budget:

1) Eliminate Police Security Detail For County Executive: “A savings of almost $400,000 a year could be realized. The County Executive
does not need a bodyguard or around-the-clock police protection.”

2) Cut The Number Of Staff Members At The Board of Legislators: “When I was a Legislator there were very few staff positions. Now
there are 41 staff members. Each Legislator does not need paid staff. Use interns; if the legislature wants to pay their assistants, work with
some of the area colleges and law schools and pay interns a nominal fee. The budget for the Legislature exceeds $4 million. Millions could
be saved.”

3) Eliminate Take-Home Cars For Commissioners/Elected County-Wide Officials;

4) Cut Overtime Costs: “Monitor overtime being given to senior employees. Why can’t junior, less expensive employees do the work at reduced costs?”

5) Stop Paying All Travel, Meals For Employees Going To Conferences: “In the town of Greenburgh I have directed that no travel/meals be paid for unless contractually required.”

6) End County Executive’s Robo Calls: “It’s a waste of money and an irritant.”

7) Start Cutting Administrative Positions: “We can reduce number of employees.”

8) Accept Advertising For County Publications: “It would offset costs.”

9) Adopt An Ethics Law Prohibiting The County From Awarding Contracts To Contractors Who Donate Money To Political Campaigns Of Any County Official: “Most contractors presently contribute money to incumbent county officials. If they could not contribute, lawmakers would be less inclined to make sweetheart deals with contractors. The $13 million-plus Board of Elections Building acquisition in Ardsley probably would not have happened.”

10) Sell Off Some Of The Office Owned By The County.

11) Playland Should Be Sold Or Leased To A Private Operator.

On the group’s new web site,
http://www.rethinkingwestchestergov.com/, similar solutions are proposed. The group notes that out of 62 counties in New York State, only two counties, Westchester and Nassau, have security details for their County Executives. The group also proposes the complete elimination of the Board of Legislators, who currently cost the County a total of $4,722,056. These costs represent a dramatic increase in recent years as noted on the group’s website.

Paul Feiner pointed out, “There are 17 legislators. In recent years the legislature has increased its staff significantly. In 2007, there were 27 staff
assistants to the legislature. In 2008, the number jumped to 44. Less than 20 years ago, legislators did not have the ability to hire their own personal staff assistants. Taxes were lower”. RWG’s founders also detail the significant lack of internal controls and audits in the County’s administration, supporting the findings in several of The Guardian’s articles on this subject.

New York City displays all audit reports on their Comptroller’s office website, Westchester County does not, in defiance of government regulations calling for full disclosure to taxpayers. In reference to the Board of Legislators’ non-compliance with accounting regulations governing
document retention, RWG notes: “According to the county Finance Department, receipts should ‘be kept by the department for six years for audit
purposes.’ However, when The Journal News sought copies of the receipts through a FOIL request, the board’s records access officer, Michael Amodio, said he could produce only a fraction of them - for 32 of 84 purchases listed on a summary of the expenses supplied by the board.”

When confronted about the lack of documentation, “the Board said officials were not aware that they needed to retain purchase card receipts”. But the resumes of the Board members reveal their years of experience in the business, academic, and government arenas. How could such individuals,
who unquestionably file individual and business tax returns, not know that all records should be kept for a minimum of five to seven years for potential audits? Indeed, on his home page, George Oros, the Board’s Minority Leader, Republican, District 1, alleges that he “is known for his policies on fiscal reform and diligence when reviewing contracts and budgets”. Apparently that diligence did not extend to reviewing and approving expenses by the Board’s own staff.

Thousands of taxpayers’ dollars were spent in recent years on questionable purchases by a Board aide, Gary Kriss, on the County’s credit card. As noted by the RWG: “These were purchases of equipment for various Board Of Legislator personnel that could not wait to be processed through the usual County system without negatively impacting their effectiveness,” the Board’s statement said.

According to County policy, the purchase card was to be used for “incidental and emergency” purchases. Yet Kriss used his extensively, including
for $1,120 in various software and electronics purchases and an additional $476.12 in purchases at Verizon retail outlets. What the Board’s statement fails to note is that their “incidental and emergency” expenses were still subject to basic reviews and approvals.

The Board could have easily done these reviews in their own office, not delaying any conceivable “emergency” requests for spending. The Board has four accountants on their own staff: a Director of Fiscal Affairs, a Deputy Director of Fiscal Affairs, a Fiscal Analyst, and a Fiscal Studies Associate. In addition, the Chair of the Board’s Budget Committee, Jose Alvarado, is an accountant. So where were these individuals when Gary Kriss was on his spending spree with our tax dollars? Why didn’t any of these accountants do their job?

Note: Unlike other County departments, the Board of Legislators accountants do not note the pay levels of their own staff in their budget
reports, so that taxpayers cannot readily determine how much each of these officials are being paid, in defiance of full disclosure accounting regulations. But The Guardian’s investigation revealed the exorbitant amount of money these officials receive in compensation.

In 2007, the Director of Fiscal Affairs, Robert Boland, was making a base salary of $138,089; the Deputy Director, Olivia Rhodes, was earning a base of $130,598; the Fiscal Analyst, Raymond Indelicato, was making a base of $130,598, and the Fiscal Studies Associate, Louise Gantress, was earning a base of $69,226 for a 2007 total of $468,511.

Factoring in 4% annual raises, and adding the average $32,010 it costs the County in benefits and taxes for each employee, the Board is compensating these accountants to the tune of $634,781 a year. For that kind of money, none of them could check how their own staff was
spending taxpayers’ dollars right under their noses. Nor could they set reviews, policies, procedures, and staff/operational audits in place so the Gary Kriss debacle wouldn’t happen to begin with. What are we paying Board of Legislators’ accountants $634,781 a year to do?

For Guardian readers who wish to ask the Board’s accountants those questions themselves, they can be reached at:

Director Robert Boland: 1-914-995-2816

Deputy Director, Olivia Rhodes: 1-914-995-3050

Fiscal Analyst, Raymond Indelicato: 1-914-995-2843

Fiscal Studies Associate, Louise Gantress: 1-914-995-2804

In addition, The Guardian asked Legislator Alvarado to explain how he honors his professional responsibilities as an accountant when reviewing and approving County budgets and expenditures, specifically how can he approve a budget that does not adhere to generally accepted accounting standards and government regulations.

The accountants on staff for the Board of Legislators, above, including Legislator Alvarado, have to report to a higher authority than Spano
and William Ryan, the Board of Legislators Chair; the accountants must ultimately account for their actions to a variety of state and federal regulatory agencies and to their own professional governing bodies such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants” (AICPA). Just as an attorney can be disbarred for disregarding legal rules and ethics, so too can accountants lose their licenses and their right to practice their profession if they do not adhere to their fiduciary and ethical responsibilities. In the eyes of a County Government accountant, Westchester County taxpayers should outrank Spano, Ryan, et.al.; the accountants are professionally beholden directly to us, not to our political leaders.

However, as of press time, we did not receive a single response from Alvarado regarding how he prioritizes his professional and fiduciary responsibilities to the local taxpayers as opposed to his political allegiances to Andy Spano, Bill Ryan, the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party who garnered his place on the ballot to begin with. As the Chair of the Budget Committee, it is Alvarado who ultimately holds local taxpayers’ dollars in his hands since the final approval for the budget rests with his Committee. And, as an accountant, he is professionally beholden to local taxpayers, not to the political leaders and party bosses, especially when those political leaders play games with taxpayers’
money as they are currently attempting to do with the late-date raises for County department heads.

On November 12, County Executive Spano sought retroactive raises for his staff heads for 2008 in a letter to the Board, yet made no reference
to that letter in his submission of his 2009 Operating Budget on November 14, all of which begs the question: Are these raises already factored into the 2009 County Operating Budget? Or do they now have to be added? The Guardian cannot determine if Alvarado demanded a revised budget for 2009, a new Year-End-Estimate for 2008 showing the impact of these raises, or a comparative budget for 2009 – one showing the last-minute 2008 raises on 2009 salaries, and one without.

Given that fact, how can he, or taxpayers, for that matter, determine if these raises have to be added to 2009, increasing taxes even further? Alvarado cannot professionally accept or approve last-minute backdoor raises that defy basic accounting procedures; significant changes in expenses warrant a complete revision of the underlying budgets.

If Alvarado does not confirm whether the back door 2008 raises are in the 2009 Budget that was submitted last week, he could end up approving
a budget for 2009 that is already obsolete, in complete defiance of accounting procedures and basic logic! Do any of the accountants in our County Government even know basic accounting? Are any of them doing their jobs in accordance with proper accounting rules and procedures? Do any of them even acknowledge that their professional and fiduciary responsibility is to the taxpayers and government regulatory agencies and not to the County bosses? Without a response from Legislator Alvarado, The Guardian has no idea what reviews and audits he requested and performed, what
controls, policies, and guidelines he adhered to, and how he ultimately accounted for and monitored taxpayers’ dollars.

On its web site, RWG asks “What would happen without a County Government?” This question is not unreasonable and the alternatives are completely feasible. Many states, including neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, survive without the multiple and duplicative layers of government that exist in New York. The founders behind Rethinking Westchester Government are asking local residents to start “considering County life without County government”.

According to Rob Astorino, a former member of the County Board of Legislators and former Republican challenger in the 2005 County Executive race: “Mr. Spano just doesn’t get it. His budget and tax increase is out of touch with the real world. The economy is in a tailspin. People are struggling and worried.

The last thing they need is to pay more money to an already bloated County Government. Tough choices need to be made, both immediately
and long-term, but he keeps strolling along his merry old way.” It may indeed be time for the taxpayers to cut the County’s purse strings completely. Starting with the “accountants” on the County payroll.





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