When $1,700 in new office furniture was delivered to University Council Member Betty Jean Grant's office last week, some people privately grumbled that the cash-strapped city shouldn't be shelling out money for a new desk, bookcase and cabinets. After learning about the complaints, an indignant Grant branded her critics "back-stabbers" and said it only underscores the "level of disunity" that has engulfed City Hall since a contentious Common Council downsizing polarized lawmakers.
City Clerk Charles L. Michaux III, who approved the furniture purchase, sent a terse message to critics: Grow up.
"It's petty and it's childish. We don't have time for this kind of nitpicking," he said.
Besides, said Michaux, other Council offices recently received new computers that each cost nearly $1,100. City clerk records indicate the offices of Niagara Council Member Dominic J. Bonifacio, Delaware Council Member Marc A. Coppola, Ellicott Council Member Brian C. Davis and North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. received new computers.
"Replacing outdated computers is one thing," said a city employee who asked not to be identified. "But should we be buying new furniture when we've laid off police officers? It's not just the $1,700. It's the principle."
Michaux defended the purchase, saying Grant requested the new furniture in early 2001, before the city's fiscal crisis erupted.
"At that time, I told her 'no,' just like I told a lot of people," he said.
Michaux has the authority to approve purchases for Council offices. He said that he also conferred with Council President James W. Pitts about Grant's request and that Pitts told him to proceed with the purchase.
When the new city budget took effect July 1, Michaux said officials did not impose a freeze on office expenditures, so he authorized the purchases. He disputed claims by some Council staffers that Grant's previous furniture was "almost new," saying her old desk was ordered years ago and had "structural problems."
Grant insisted there's nothing wrong with replacing older "mismatched pieces" of furniture when such expenditures are earmarked in the budget. She also said she would be interested in seeing a detailed analysis of how all Council members spend public money -- both inside their offices and in their districts.
"How are we going to operate in a spirit of unity and cooperation when this kind of back-stabbing is going on?" she said. "Why didn't a single person have the decency to come to me with any complaints they had?"
Grant was a leading opponent of a plan approved by voters this month that will cut the size of the Council. She thinks the complaints are fallout from that divisive debate.
Even some Council members not allied with Grant were cautious in making public comments when asked for reaction.
"I won't criticize my colleagues, because they're the ones who have to face their constituencies," Golombek said. "But I feel very uncomfortable spending money when the city is in the financial shape it's in."
Neither Coppola nor Golombek was among those who initially contacted a reporter about the new furniture, but several other city employees complained about the purchase.
Some insiders predicted that it might rekindle discussions about possible freezes in various budget lines.
The city faces a $28.6 million gap by next summer. The cumulative shortfall is projected to grow to nearly $66 million within five years.