Thursday, December 11, 2008

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

County Government’s
Credibility On The Line

Susan Tolchin, mouthpiece for the County Executive’s Office, whose immature and petulant approach “says loads” about the attitude of the heads of County government, would do well to think before she speaks. She is alleging that the decrease in Spano’s proposed budget is $11 million, totally incorrect. At Tolchin’s current rate of pay of $156,891, if she is actually rewarded with a raise along with other department heads for her pathetic display of unprofessionalism, her new 2009 base salary will be $161,990. Factor in the County average benefit cost per employee of $32,010, and Tolchin’s total annual compensation will be approximately $194,000.

Adding insult to injury, Tolchin’s response shows a complete lack of effort to do her job right; she clearly didn’t even try to report the facts correctly. Had she even bothered to open the very first page of the County Budget, she would have indeed read Spano’s comment on the “reduction” in the 2009 budget: “The gross budget for 2009 is $1,773,479,195 for a decrease of $101,426;” from the mouth of the naked Emperor himself, and not the $11 million Tolchin is claiming. Gee, Susan, who’s your daddy now?

Is the County government spending so much time lying to us lately that they do not recognize their own convoluted and misconstrued facts even
when they’re hit with them clean in the face? It’s not as if the County can dodge the evidence; at the budget hearing in the Board of Legislator’s chambers last Wednesday evening, dozens of local residents stood up to challenge the County on the budget, the proposed tax increases, and the back-door raises for the chiefs. Spano, Tolchin, Schwartz, Ryan, et. al., didn’t have to leave their ivory tower to hear the taxpayers’ complaints,
the taxpayers came to them, in droves.

Of course, neither Spano, nor Schwartz, nor Tolchin, were actually present at the hearing to listen to and acknowledge the taxpayers’ concerns;
but more on that, later. Leading the charge against the County budget at this hearing was the tag-team of the Westchester County Association and the League of Women Voters. Mr. Dick French, the Chair of the WCA, painted this damning picture of Spano’s pay-raise manipulations:

“Just as the country reacted to the three auto executives flying their private jets from Detroit to Washington as they pled for a bailout, so too the
County Executive awarding retroactive pay raises to his Commissioners while at the same time many of our fellow Westchester residents had to join, for the first time in their lives, the food pantry lines. This only goes to document that our leaders are tone deaf!”

French warned the Board that: “You are sending a signal of opacity rather than transparency to your fellow citizens and leaving us to speculate that you really don’t want analysis of this complex subject”. He urged the Board that “enough was enough,” a message that was reiterated throughout the hearing from other speakers. William Mooney of the WCA seconded these sentiments: “At a time when everybody is severely
restructuring, why is the County not doing the same? We are being taxed to death. It cannot be business as usual”.

Ms. Mary Beth Gose, the President of the League of Women Voters, analyzed that “the County spent $11.1 million more and $16.8 million more
than had been budgeted for the 2008 operating and capital budgets, respectively,” deducing that the 2009 budget amounts are also likely to be overspent and that the current dire economic situation and proposed tax increases could be even worse as a result. Gose berated the Board, “That the County’s underlying assumption for the 2009 budget appears to be that the County is already operating efficiently.

The League questions this assumption and urges the BOL and the County administration to critically analyze administrative and departmental costs to determine actual essential needs and duplication of services”. She was advocating a method similar to the zero-based budget recommended by this reporter in the Guardian last month.

A feisty Barbara Strauss of the LWV County Budget watch-group urged the BOL and the County to have a watch-group of their own: “The League strongly supports the concept of oversight, both for the BOL and for the Executive branch of County government”. Strauss did not stop there: “The League also recommends the creation of a volunteer commission to conduct a feasibility study for establishing an office of Inspector General, or similar entity, to investigate and resolve issues relating to the procurement process, as well as corruption, fraud, conflicts of interest, etc.”

In other words, establishing a County Audit Department, echoing the advice offered, again, by this reporter, in the Guardian in our articles last month. Strauss recommended that this commission should include “individuals from the business community and non-profit organizations”. As other speakers noted, Westchester County has an abundance of individuals with remarkable experience and expertise who could assist the County and its residents in this crisis.

After an initial round of speakers opposing the back-door raises, the bloated budget, the proposed tax increases, and even the constricted timetable of the budget approval process limiting taxpayer involvement, several special-interest supporters approached the Board to assure their slots in the budget. The Greenburgh Nature Center alleged that they were “the most visited Nature Preserve in the County” and their programs and events should continue to receive funding from the County.

However, Westchester County already has five nature preserves of its own: Cranberry Lake, Marshlands, Lenoir, Edith Read, and Trailside which
already cost the County $536,618. So why does the County need to fund the non-profit Greenburgh Center who admits, in their own annual report, that they obtain funding from “the Town of Greenburgh, Westchester County and New York State, along with tuition fees, membership dues, corporate and foundation grants, business sponsorships and individual contributions”. The Center notes that “Westchester County provided funding to help support our environmental programs for schools, as well as our weekend family events”. But why can’t these programs be held at the
five County preserves instead? What do we have those nature preserves for?

Thom Collins from the Neuberger Museum of Art, unlike the other speakers, was not there to beg for money. Instead he acknowledged that he already had his funding, blatantly thanking the Legislators who “restored $500,000 (for the Museum) to the most recent budget”. Indeed? There were other, less expensive versions, of the County budget available? If so, why weren’t those budgets provided to local taxpayers for their review?

Why are we only shown the budget with this $500,000 slipped in apparently “after-the-fact”? Are the Legislators approving a budget that’s
at least $500,000 more than the one revealed on the County website? And what else was slipped into the “most recent budget” and who put it there? Even more questionable, why are the Westchester County taxpayers being asked to subsidize the Neuberger Museum, a part of Purchase College of the State University of New York? Isn’t the Neuberger SUNY’s responsibility?

Where is it written in the County charter that Westchester has to subsidize a state college? And why are we giving this Museum half a million dollars for modern art exhibits in a year when taxpayers are struggling to pay basic heating and food bills? Since Collins appeared confident
that this funding was already approved, why is art a priority with the County over social services for the poor, handicapped, and the elderly?

Thomas Schwartz, the President of Purchase College, recently urged Governor Paterson to approve a senior living center on the campus noting
that “they, the proposed residents, are active participants in programs at the Neuberger Museum of Art and The Performing Arts Center.” With all the money Purchase will get from leasing state land for this living community, why can’t Purchase subsidize those programs itself and not hit up Westchester taxpayers, who are non-SUNY students and non-Purchase college residents, and who are working too hard to pay their exorbitant property taxes to be able to participate in museum lectures on modern art? Perhaps the answer lies with the Morgan Stanley executives on
the Neuberger board?

Following these pleas were some true heart-wrenching tales from several representatives from My Sister’s Place, an emergency shelter for abused women and their children. The Deputy Director of this center noted that “most victims stay with us for 90 to 135 days, at which point County funding ends. But we often hold families in shelters longer, while we are waiting to secure housing for them, so they do not have to go into the homeless system. The County’s homeless shelters are not confidentially located so some of our families would be in danger there from their abusers”. Contrasted with the $500,000 budgeted for the Neuberger Museum, My Sister’s Place only receives a $40,000 grant from the County to protect women and children from danger. Where are the County Legislator’s priorities? Aren’t people more important than paintings?

Several impressive young people from the County’s own Invest-in-Kids program spoke about the services they receive and pleaded for the continuation of their programs. The youth members who spoke were Mr. James Ward, Ms. Semarley Jarrett, and Ms. Juliana Leghorn. Mr.
Ward gave a coherent, impassioned plea for the “lost children,” those who age out of foster care and services: “My name is James Ward, I am 16
years old and I now attend Mt. Vernon High School and represent the Mount Vernon community. I am a member of the Westchester Youth Council of Family Services of Westchester. I have been a part of the Youth Council for almost five years now and through this time I’ve become
a better speaker as well as influential among my peers.

I believe that we should continue funding for those who ‘age out’ of foster care because their future is just as important as anyone else’s. Without the funding from the county, they will be taking away the opportunity to a future. It’s not only the people who come from families that are the future of this county but it’s all the youth of this county that will affect this community.

Those who are coming out of foster care, without a sense of direction, will tend to associate themselves with those who deal with illegal actions and
we already have enough of that in our community. And, by ensuring those who need it are attended to, we are building a better future for our County”. The leaders of the Invest-in-Kids program noted that these children develop “learning skills and also develop advocacy skills to benefit other kids, even doing grantwriting”, stressing how difficult grantwriting can be and how essential it is for a non-profit organization to survive.

Which begs the question, instead of the County simply doling out money to the Greenburgh Nature Center, and the Neuberger Museum, and the like, why doesn’t the County offer its grantwriting skills and services to these nonprofits so they can get their own money and not have to take from us taxpayers? Some programs were noting that they were already achieving a lot with so little. Pat Levy, a special education teacher from the Greenburgh schools, spoke of the achievements her students are making thanks to the new music therapy programs in her district.

Jane Aoyama-Martin, the Executive Director of the Pace Women’s Center, told of how her law students are volunteering to provide legal services and obtain emergency Orders Of Protection for abuse victims in Family Court. “With the funding we receive from the County, we actually save taxpayers money.” Ms. Aoyama-Martin told the Guardian. “If the County did not have our volunteers in Family Court, they would have to appoint attorneys to represent these victims, costing taxpayers $75 an hour each. We also are able to address emergencies quickly, possibly
preventing additional problems”.

Aoyama-Martin noted that Family Court handles cases of senior abuse as well as abused spouses and children. Again, protecting these victims should be given far greater priority in the County’s budget than their $1.2 million appropriation in 2009 for paving golf cart paths on the County golf courses! As Aoyama-Martin correctly analyzed, “The money we are asking for is a relatively small portion of the County budget, but the
human benefits are so great.”

As the night dragged on, and the room grew warmer, many residents left. But amazingly, so too did many of the Legislators who were getting
paid taxpayers’ dollars to sit there and listen to the taxpayer’s comments. The hearings Chair, Jose Alvarado (D, District 17), did not appear to be in control of these proceedings, allowing his fellow legislators to leave whenever they wished. During a large portion of the speakers’ presentations, George Oros (R, District 1) appeared to be writing a memo instead of paying attention to the speakers. Worse, he actually got up
and left after an hour to get face time in the hall on Cable 12 news, skipping out on the presentations from the Family Court volunteers and their issues on protecting abuse victims. In contrast, Oros was both present and alert, however, for all of the presentations from the Neuberger Museum.

Likewise, Martin Rogowsky (D, District 6), James Maisano (R, District 11), and Gordon Burroughs (R, District 11) were all missing-in-action during the Education presentations. Steven Kaplan, a Certified Public Accountant, member of the Blind Brook Board of Education in Rye Brook, and a forensic accountant, offered his expertise to the legislators who were still present to hear his advice. Kaplan sympathized with the County noting, “I, too, will have my share of challenges when we shortly begin tackling next year’s school budget, although how we approach the process is vastly different”.

Kaplan stressed that more recognition needs to be given “to the value of transparency, and to timely access to information. Not only does the public have a right to know, but in my experience, the public often has valuable insights and skill sets that those in public service cannot and do not.” Kaplan asked the legislators to address the budget process “from the viewpoint of accessibility and willingness to hear ideas.” Of course, it would have helped if the legislators were actually in the room to hear to begin with!

Both Kaplan and the members of the LWV expressed concerns with the short time-frame “from the time the budget is introduced until the time it
is voted upon” noting this was “a mere three weeks, with the busy Thanksgiving weekend in the midst”. Kaplan echoed the frustration of the other taxpayers watch-groups over obtaining more detailed information during this short time frame noting that the WCA “submitted a document request for some 15 information items, and none have yet been fulfilled”. Kaplan noted that Blind Brook openly adopts “best practices” from other school districts, copying Pelham by offering an all day budget discussion on a Saturday, with defined discussion times, “so residents know when in the day they should come for their area of interest”.

Kaplan also noted that “a very detailed budget is also posted online, with a commentary that accompanies each section” much like the recommendations made by this reporter in the Guardian in November. Blind Brook also has a citizens advisory committee, like the one recommended for the County by the LWV, who look not only at the current year’s budget, but also “works on long-term strategic budget and financial planning”, again, echoing the integrated budgeting recommendations made by this reporter in the Guardian.

Kaplan strikingly compared the volunteer efforts of his school district with those of the over-paid County staff: “Our public process spans nearly
three months from the time presented to the time voted upon by the taxpayers. Three months for $38 million, as compared to a holiday- interrupted three weeks for $1.8 billion!” Which begs the obvious question: If a small community of local volunteers can run a budget according to accepted government accounting standards of accessibility, oversight, and consistency, why can’t our overpaid government of-ficials and their equally overpaid legions of minions do the same? Perhaps the answer does indeed lie with Susan Tolchin’s snippy response. The County’s inability
to produce a realistic budget with full disclosure within a reasonable time frame “says loads about their credibility”. And that’s no credibility at all.

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