January 17, 2007
The Pork Stops Here, Sez Levy
Some call them legislative grants. Some call it pork. By any name, Steve Levy wants to call it quits. Last week the County Executive got support from an unlikely source — longtime Lex Luther Legislator Ed Romaine — in debuting a series of reforms geared toward stemming an ever-burgeoning tide of spending.
Standing with Levy at a press conference in Hauppauge last Wednesday morning, Romaine recalled serving with him in the legislature 20 years ago when lawmakers didn't even have a member item system. The North Fork lawmaker admitted that while he has always been philosophically opposed to member items, he's made sure that when they were doled out, his district didn't get the short end of the stick.
According to the County Executive, member item spending has ballooned each year, with last year's budget seeing a surge to $10 million. His spokesman Mark Smith said that while each member of the legislature receives $35,000 to distribute within their districts, when lawmakers create their omnibus amendment to Levy's proposed spending plan, they pad budget lines. Later in the year, legislators can suck the pork out of padded lines for pet projects, with colleagues on the horseshoe voting "based on behind the door handshake agreements," Smith said.
At the press conference, Levy spoke of grants to contract agencies. He calls them "one shots," but often the agencies, many soup kitchens or health centers or local civic groups like Cub Scout packs or school PTAs, use the grants as part of their annual operating expenses. His reform would all but obliterate small sum grants. In its debut form, Levy's legislation sets a minimum of $5000 per grant. The CE said he wanted to set the figure at $10,000 but chose the lower figure as the baseline for negotiation with opponents on the legislature. Also, Levy chose the higher number — many agencies can receive grants as low as $100, or $500 annually — because he'd like to make sure the money is only used for "meaningful" projects.
Designed to ensure accountability, Levy's plan requires that every line item grant include the name of its legislative sponsor. The grants should also be funded on a line-item basis no matter how they are categorized.
Two provisions of the law, if approved, will see the end of agencies begging for taxpayer money, while spending excessive amounts on salaries and administrative expenses. No agency with administrative expenses greater than 20 percent of its program expenses or with salaries for administrators over $150,00 would be eligible for funding unless it's adopted by a three-quarters vote of the entire membership. Also, at least half of the agencies that receive money should provide programs or services that meet a regional need as opposed to the needs of just one legislative district.
Responding to contentions made during the press conference, Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay (D. Holbrook), who called for an ad-hoc committee of lawmakers to oversee the contract agency process weeks ago, seemed bemused by the CE's take on the process. Lindsay said he "certainly" doesn't agree with Levy's accusations of indiscriminate pork allocations.
"I have no idea what he's talking about with any of these examples," Lindsay said, referring to oft-referenced grants for prom dresses and law books for a private school. Those grants were given by predecessors, Lindsay said, adding, "They're old news."
In fact, Lindsay pointed out that Levy himself includes "10 times" as much money for contract agencies in the budget than lawmakers do. Just one of them, to a Hauppauge Industrial Association, measured between $35,000 and $50,000 and was used to subsidize a trade show the private organization mounts, Lindsay reported, adding, "I'm a little bit resentful the county executive makes it sound like we're the only ones who put money in the budget for community groups. He does much, much more."