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DEBENEDETTI LEADS LEGISLATORS IN BILLING COUNTY FOR MILEAGE

The legislator leading the charge against the Erie County's lavish fleet of vehicles also leads all lawmakers in billing for his own mileage.

Legislator Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, charges taxpayers $3 for the mile drive from his home to his district office and $4.32 for the trip from home to County Hall at 25 Delaware Ave. for Legislature meetings.

Since 1999, his billing totals about $825 a year, not big money compared with the cost of a taxpayer-provided vehicle, which the county's fleet director estimates at $5,000 annually.

"I don't feel I've gouged taxpayers at all," DeBenedetti said, arguing that he starts working each day from home. "If my constituents feel that strongly about it, they can let me know, and I will consider changing my practices. I'm not getting rich on $65 a month."

Most county employees, like most private-sector workers, do not get paid for driving to their jobs. But with the loose regulation of county lawmakers' expenses, DeBenedetti and Legislator Edward J. Kuwik, D-Lackawanna, have billed taxpayers for years for their drives to their offices, continuing the policy in effect when they initially were elected.

Since 1999, Kuwik has billed the county for $3,957, while DeBenedetti has billed $4,665, according to documents obtained by The Buffalo News. The records show they are the only lawmakers, whose base pay this year is $42,588, seeking reimbursement for such trips.

DeBenedetti said he never has heard an objection from the county comptroller's office. Deputy Comptroller James Liddle said while rank-and-file employees can't be reimbursed for driving to work, lawmakers' mileage costs are paid from a $257,000 fund for "other expenses," with no written rule defining legitimate outlays.

Liddle said the comptroller's office, which issues the checks, looks to see if a voucher has been signed by one of a small cadre of Legislature staffers authorized to approve expenses. If so, a check goes out.

"No one from our office can ever remember a payment being rejected under 'other expenses,' " Liddle said, adding that the account never has been audited.

Legislature Chairman George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo, unaware of the bills from DeBenedetti and Kuwik, said he won't put a stop to it.

"Apparently our comptroller's office has been approving this from Day One, so it's not something against the law," he said. "So if a legislator is interested in that, that's their choice."

DeBenedetti has been a leading critic of the Giambra administration's budget decisions and its policy of providing key employees county-owned cars they can drive to and from work.

About three dozen government employees -- including emergency officials, top aides to the county executive and officials elected countywide, such as County Clerk David J. Swarts and District Attorney Frank J. Clark -- have been assigned cars to take home.

On Oct. 5, in questioning Robert Bartholomew, Giambra's fleet director, DeBenedetti learned that while the county insists the cars be used only for government business, drivers need not indicate their destinations in their logs. Bartholomew said he had no way to determine whether the cars have been used for such trips as the grocery store or golf course.

DeBenedetti said Wednesday that at least he discloses his destinations on his mileage form.

"There are many times when I use my car for work that I don't even bill," he said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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