Spectators at County Executive Joel A. Giambra's State of the County address Feb. 16 were given a lapel pin in the image of a lighthouse, a leadership symbol Giambra has used for his election campaigns.
If not for a stubborn comptroller's office, taxpayers would have paid for those 1,000 lapel pins -- a charge of $1,190 -- for no apparent public benefit.
Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz in January had kicked the invoice back to Giambra with a note reminding him of the county's fiscal situation: "I cannot justify authorizing the expenditure of county funds for lapel pins without a written explanation of the expenditure's benefit to the public."
A Giambra spokesman said the invoice was mistakenly submitted to the comptroller's office and has since been paid by one of Giambra's campaign accounts, the Friends of Joel A. Giambra.
Late last week, Giambra said such an error won't happen again.
"I have informed the staff to make sure something like that never gets submitted for reimbursement," he said.
It has happened before. In 2005, then-Comptroller Nancy A. Naples examined an invoice for lighthouse lapel pins as Giambra readied that year's State of the County address.
At that time, Naples was being forced to lay off workers in her office to deal with the county's financial meltdown. She returned the bill to Giambra with a note telling him to justify "how this expenditure benefits the taxpayers."
Giambra's campaign account later paid the bill in 2005, too, but in prior years the government did pay for the pins Giambra distributed at his annual speeches.
Before Giambra, then-County Executive Dennis T. Gorski made his annual speeches smaller events, delivering them in the County Legislature chambers before a crowd that didn't number in the hundreds, as Giambra's do in the Buffalo Convention Center.
This year, about 700 people heard the county executive say he has not been "radical enough" in pushing for a new regional government for Erie County, and he asked the public to trust that he is moving ahead with the visionary plans he promised in the past.
Later, listeners said he had glossed over the county's financial strife from 2005 and how he will avoid another tax increase for 2007.
But the lapel pins?
"It really is not about the state of the county; it's about him," said Daniel T. Warren, a taxpayer advocate who is suing the County Legislature over last year's violations of New York's Open Meetings Law.
Warren said if Giambra wanted to give out a memento, he could have given a pin bearing the Erie County seal.
"Oftentimes, he equates himself to a CEO. Well, a CEO wouldn't pass out his private family crest rather than the company logo," Warren said.