News & Opinion » News

Picking apart the county


When Maggie Brooks released her first-ever county budget proposal, its contents were a pleasant surprise to many. At first glance, it appeared balanced, and essentially kept her promise to maintain services, albeit with an increase in the tax levy.

Now the honeymoon period is over, and groups on all sides are beginning to make rumblings of discontent.

Almost everyone who looked at the document noticed one section that normally wouldn't be included in a budget: a new procurement policy. The policy included in Monroe County's 2005 budget proposal makes one significant change from the previous policy; it allows the county executive to waive the required request for proposal (RFP) process for professional services purchased by the county. Critics charge that the change will exacerbate a "pay to play" mentality that already exists, in which contractors that provide services to the county make donations to both political parties for a crack at lucrative contracts.

One of those critics is Paul Haney, former county director of finance in the administration of Democratic County Executive Tom Frey, who calls the move "one of the most outrageous assaults on decent government practice that I've ever seen." He believes the policy change was slipped into the budget because a past decision by the state's courts ruled that anything in the budget is automatically adopted, unless specifically amended by the legislature.

"What is being proposed here is a political leader's dream," says Haney. "I have to believe this is pure Steve Minarik [chair of the Monroe County Republican Committee]." The county spends millions of dollars each year on professional services, Haney says. "This means that it will simply go to the highest bidder in terms of contributions to the Republican Party machine."

Haney disparages the notion that the change would give an executive necessary flexibility in emergencies, saying that state law already provides for that. His real concern is that when the legislators look at contracts for approval, they won't know if they're being responsible with taxpayer dollars.

"They're will be nothing to compare it too," he says. "The legislature will have no idea whether the price being suggested is reasonable or unreasonable because there will be nothing else on the table."

The ability to waive the RFP process with no explanation could make it far easier for the county executive to simply hand expensive contracts to the politically connected --- at taxpayers' expense, says Haney.

But Bill Smith, leader of the Republican majority in the legislature, says he doesn't oppose the measure and downplays such fears.

"The key thing is that the county legislature still retains power to approve these things. So it's not a blank check," for the county executive, he says. Even in cases where the administration might send the legislature a contract without an RFP or information about other potential firms, Smith says, there's still a system of checks and balances in place: "Then the legislature has the choice to say 'no,'" he says.

Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson was less outspoken about the city's concerns with the budget, which he says is still being analyzed. One change in particular that does worry him is the in-sourcing of foster care. "It's going to cause tremendous hardship to a lot of agencies," in the city, he says. Still, he says, Rochester fares better under Brooks than in the past. "Let's put it this way, in previous years it's been a lot worse," Johnson says.

Jim Valpone, with the Civil Service Employees Association (the largest union representing county employees) says his organization has identified 14 people whose positions have been eliminated. But CSEA is also still analyzing the budget, says Valpone, and not ready to make criticisms.

The same can't be said for another union: The Federation of Social Workers incorporated complaints about the budget into a protest over their lack of a contract, high caseloads, and what they see as the dangerous short-changing of programs like Child Protective Services. The group released a study last week entitled "A Tragedy Waiting to Happen..." which states that CPS investigators handle an average of 26 cases at a time --- more the twice the number recommended by the Child Welfare League of America.

The FSW report directly criticizes the recommendations of Brooks' Budget Advisory Team, which included substantial cuts to social services. Even though those cuts weren't enacted, the union is aggressively putting forward its own recommendations to counter those of the BAT report. Among them: adopting a plan by the democratic minority to re-import Canadian prescription drugs for employees on the county's health plan, restoring the property-tax rate to pre-1992 levels, and restructuring the county's debt.

Yet another criticism came from the recently departed Democratic legislator Jay Ricci. He claims the county has overestimated state and federal aid for its tenth consecutive budget, averaging about 10 percent more than actual aid figures. He's not entirely certain it's a coincidence, either.

"There's no way that you can make this mistake 10 years in a row," he says. Using figures from 2003 --- the most recent available --- Ricci estimates the county will receive closer to $270 million from Washington and Albany, rather than the $303 million predicted in the administration's budget proposal. But Ricci says the administration's budget doesn't use the latest figures. "It isn't rocket science: you use past performance to predict future outcome," he says.

A public hearing on the Brooks budget proposal is scheduled for Thursday, November 4, Legislative Chambers, County Office Building, 39 West Main Street, at 5:30 p.m.