We all know about the pork barrel spending for pet projects that comes out of Washington (as in that famous earmark for a "bridge to nowhere"), and those formerly secretive member item grants that came out of Albany are now beginning to see the light of day (Project Sunlight), but do you know what your County Legislators have been doling out in their districts?
Not all of the spending is untoward. In fact, much of it, if not most, is warranted, and truly benefits the good of the greater community.
Still, in light of past wasteful and arguably inappropriate spending of the taxpayers' money, scandals as to where these expenditures have gone (ala the NYC Council), and a long history of what can only be categorized as "shush money" (as in, "don't tell anyone we're using tax dollars to refurbish a private club"), it would be nice -- and should be required -- that we, the people, know how, when, and where our tax money is being spent.
Full disclosure should be the norm, not the exception!
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From The New York Times:
They’re Grants to Some, Pork Barrel to Others
By DAVID McKAY WILSON
WITH $9.8 million in taxpayer money to spend at their discretion, Nassau County’s 19 legislators are in an enviable position as they look to do good and win friends.
Past grants have gone for capital projects, like signs congratulating high school athletic teams for successful seasons, a fire department monument, permanent playground equipment for schools, and road and sidewalk improvements. Now, based on a recent legal opinion, the legislators can hand out the money for a wider array of projects, including security cameras, scoreboards, trees and athletic equipment.
And the Legislature’s presiding officer, Diane Yatauro, wants to spend all that discretionary money, about $6 million of it carried over from previous years, in 2008. “My goal this year is to have a zero balance at the end of the year,” she said.
As Nassau legislators decide how to dole out their money, Suffolk’s 18 county legislators have $630,000 to divide among nonprofit organizations. The grants also aid community groups that care for the indigent and working poor.
The Nassau and Suffolk legislators’ programs are Long Island’s version of pork-barrel spending, akin to earmarks that members of Congress attach to federal spending bills or the member items long dispensed by the New York State Legislature. Government watchdogs say such programs can be wasteful because the grants are given on an ad hoc basis, without planning or an assessment of community needs.
There can even be legal questions about earmarked money. For example, federal and city investigations have begun looking into spending practices of the New York City Council; the office of the speaker, Christine C. Quinn, appropriated millions of dollars to nonexistent organizations, routing the money to groups favored by individual council members.
Oversight of the Long Island programs varies by county. In Nassau, legislators’ grant proposals are vetted by the Department of Public Works, which oversees the county’s capital program, and by the county attorney’s office. In Suffolk, the legislators’ requests are reviewed by the legislators’ legal and budget staffs.
Critics say such programs provide opportunities for politicians to boost their community image and woo voters by commandeering funds for cherished projects.
“It buys political support for them,” said Ester R. Fuchs, professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University. “It gives them something to take credit for on Election Day.”
But there are also strong supporters of the programs. “Some people say there’s something wrong with a politician giving money to a Little League or a museum,” said Edward J. Morris, the executive director of the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame, whose group received $8,000 in 2007 to pay for part of his assistant’s salary. “Well, I think it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
The Suffolk Legislature and County Executive Steve Levy have wrangled over the grants, called the Community Service Initiative Program, since the Legislature removed the program from the administration’s oversight in 2006.
In 2007, the program made grants totaling $540,000. They included $1,281 for sandwiches for elderly bingo players at St. Francis Cabrini Roman Catholic Church in Coram; $2,015 for shoes for the Walt Whitman High School marching band; and $10,000 for the Lake Grove Triangle Soccer league, which included $2,380 for 400 “light-up” Lucite trophies and $1,745 for soccer balls.
The Greater Patchogue Foundation received $3,679 to irrigate the Lakeview Cemetery in Patchogue, where the caretakers wanted to improve landscaping around a 1909 monument to the Smith family, who date to Colonial days.
Mr. Levy criticized the cemetery grant, saying it served no purpose for the county. “The umbrella has gotten so big that everything and the kitchen sink is now fair game, and that’s where the wasteful spending comes in,” he said.
But Legislator Jack Eddington, a Working Family Party member from Medford who sponsored the grant, said its purpose was to honor those who had died. “We are trying to take care of the future, but can’t forget about the people who made us who we are now,” he said.
Several Suffolk grants went directly to churches. St. Louis de Monfort Roman Catholic Church in Sound Beach used a $2,000 grant to buy 80 food vouchers valued at $25 each to hand out to the poor. St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Center Moriches received $1,750 for its youth group; the money helped buy a movie projector and 71-inch screen that the church’s grant application said was needed for youth education films.
Legislator Edward P. Romaine of Center Moriches, a Republican, who sponsored the grant for St. John the Evangelist, said the youth education there was of a secular, not religious, nature. “It serves a public purpose, it doesn’t serve religion,” he said of the grant.
While the Suffolk grant program ties lawmakers to community groups, the Nassau Capital Revitalization Program links the county with its many municipalities, school districts and fire departments. It allows $200,000 in grants a year for each legislator (10 Democrats and 9 Republicans), for $3.8 million in all.
Peter J. Schmitt, a Massapequa Republican and the Legislature’s minority leader, said the program encouraged bipartisan cooperation at the county offices in Mineola and helped County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi gain support for the entire capital program. “We are happy with nine-nineteenths of the money,” Mr. Schmitt said.
In 2007, the program provided $30,000 to the Town of Oyster Bay for 114 decorative street signs in East Norwich, $2,500 to the North Merrick school district for trash cans at the Camp Avenue School, and $50,000 to the Town of North Hempstead for trees. There was also $34,000 for thermal imaging cameras for several fire departments, $80,000 for a kitchen at the Farmingdale Fire Department, and a grant for 13 signs congratulating Nassau County high schools for the accomplishments of sports teams. Many of the signs, which cost about $350 each, included the names of Mr. Suozzi and the legislator who sponsored the grant.
Judith A. Jacobs, a Nassau legislator who, with unspent money from previous years, gave out $396,000 in grants last year, said she reviewed requests from constituents and developed her own priorities because “I may discover something I believe — from my living there — is a necessary capital improvement for the community, and I’ll put that in.”
Jon D. Cooper, a Suffolk legislator, said that in choosing among nonprofit groups, he generally favored those in his district. Mr. Cooper, a Lloyds Harbor Democrat, gave out 24 grants last year totaling $33,381, including ones for youth sports clubs, an art museum, a food pantry, a veterans’ group and an animal adoption center.
One Suffolk legislator, Thomas F. Barraga of Islip, said he does not make grants. “It’s not my function to toss around money to support nonprofits and Little Leagues,” said Mr. Barraga, a Republican. “I have some groups very unhappy with me. They’ll get over it.”
A $70,000 Capital Revitalization Program grant to replace door knobs and make bathrooms accessible to the handicapped in the Great Neck school district was recently rejected by the county attorney’s office because it would have served only students in the school, not the broader community, said Charo Ezdrin, Nassau’s director of government relations.
To speed up spending this year, Ms. Yatauro has adopted the Nassau Republican method of allocating the funds by caucus rather than by individual legislator. No longer will each Democrat be given $200,000 to dole out or be able to carry over any unspent money to the next year. Instead, the entire Democratic caucus will compete for $2 million, with Ms. Yatauro and her staff determining which projects to finance.
“Everybody will submit projects to me,” Ms. Yatauro said. “Some legislators may need more, some may need less.”
The change does not sit well with Ms. Jacobs, a Woodbury Democrat who served as the Legislature’s presiding officer from 2000 to 2007.
“That brings politics into it, not the needs of the districts,” she said. “I never did that. With a 10-to-9 majority, you want every legislator to shine.”
But Ms. Yatauro said that she wants to find good projects and finance them. “I’ll make sure our 10 legislators are served properly,” she said.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company