On Sunday July 31, 2011, the Journal News published an article under the headline,. The discretionary spending for food, travel and cell phones is a story that the Journal News has published in past years. The Journal News’ reporting, in this case, by Jorge Fitz-Gibbon and Gerald McKinstry is based on documents that they received from the Board of Legislators through “Freedom of Information Laws”.
The five members of the Republican caucus applaud the Journal News for their efforts at “watchdog journalism” but frankly the reporting of this story is at best incomplete and in our opinion misleading. No member of the Republican caucus was interviewed for this story. The article reveals that a total of $39,295 was spent in 2010 on various expenses like blackberries, travel and food costs. The Journal News article shows a ‘to the penny’ breakdown of how much was paid to each of the five businesses which provided food. The article also provides the exact cost of travel for four staffers-$18,537 and the exact cost of blackberries for the 11 staffers that have them-$5,479. The reporters at the Journal News even interviewed the Rockland and Putnam Counties Board of Legislators Clerks to compare how much those boards spend on similar expenses. Again, at no time was any member of the Westchester County Republican caucus asked to comment for this story. If the minority caucus had been asked we could have provided the reporters with the most interesting aspect of the analyses of these costs; Which lawmakers and staff are spending the money? Here’s a hint, it’s not the Republicans.
Out of the entire cost for blackberries and cell phones for all lawmakers and staff the Republican caucus and their staff members are responsible for $0. That fact is one that the readers of the Journal News should have been given. To point out that the board spends money is fine but without this context, there is no accountability. The article points out that Board of Legislators staff was reimbursed for $18,537 dollars for the cost of traveling to conferences. The amount reimbursed to the staff of Republican lawmakers was, again, $0. The only travel costs reimbursed to one member of Republican caucus was approximately $450 to travel to the annual conference of the New York State Association of Counties. The fact that the Board’s spending on food has doubled to a cost of $12,637 in the last year is largely attributable to the practice of providing food to guests that attend the cultural and non-profit group recognition events that are held before the monthly Board of Legislators meeting. While we believe that it is important to recognize these groups for their contribution to the Westchester community, given the current state of the economy, catering these events is simply not a prudent use of taxpayer’s money.
The only person from the Board of Legislators that the reporters interviewed for the article was Chairman Ken Jenkins. As is his habit, Chairman Jenkins defended the spending as it is his decision to approve spending for blackberries, travel and food service. However, the Republican legislators will advocate for reducing such spending in the 2012 county budget, when budget deliberations begin in only about 100 days. The budget for the Board of Legislators CAN and MUST do more with less. As leaders in Westchester County, legislators must set the example that no amount of taxpayer money is inconsequential. During the upcoming budget negotiations, the Republican legislators will propose the following: 1) reducing the amount spent for food by eliminating food service at cultural and ethnic ceremonies at Board of Legislators; 2) eliminate the payment to legislators and staff for blackberries, 3) limit funding for travel outside of New York State by legislators; and 4) eliminate travel for staff. The Republican legislators will promote a substantive and detailed review of all other spending by the Board of Legislators to ensure that we are not spending more for expenses when compared to other counties in the state. These common sense spending reforms will significantly reduce the budget for the Board of Legislators, as the Republican legislators continue to fight to protect every tax dollar during these difficult economic times.