Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw has posted on his Web page photocopies of invoices and receipts from expenses that were incurred by the county during November’s twin lake-effect storms and its aftermath.
The items, posted under the online Taxpayer Checkbook that his office launched in January, details $19,178 in food expenditures; $2.8 million spent on snowplowing contractors; and $212,417 in towing expenses related to the storm. Mychajliw said it was posted in the interest of transparency.
“If you have nothing to hide, then we should put every single receipt online and let the public judge for themselves,” Mychajliw said Thursday.
However, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz questioned the value of posting the items without a clear narrative that puts the purchases in a context.
“I don’t see any value to it unless you have a narrative associated with it describing what it’s there for. Therefore, it’s just a receipt,” said Poloncarz.
“I know during winter storm Knife, I had to declare a state of emergency because we had reached a point where we could not handle this on our own. I could not wait for the Legislature to approve a contract to enter into agreements for plowing services and towing services,” he added.
While Mychajliw, generally, does not quarrel with the county executive’s authority to make emergency purchases during a declared emergency, he said some of the purchases appear questionable. Among them are what Mychajliw characterized as some huge discrepancies in towing charges and automotive expenses for items such as brake pads that don’t appear storm-related.
Mychajliw also questioned some of the food purchases, pointing to a receipt for $381.89 in groceries dated Nov. 21, 2014, from the Tops Market in East Aurora which Mychajliw said reads like a shopping list. When his office sought an explanation, Mychajliw said the administration’s purchasing director later agreed the purchase was not justified and would not happen again.
“Now it’s up to the Legislature whether or not they want to potentially hold hearings or question members of the administration,” Mychajliw said.
Poloncarz said all of the purchases were vetted through the county’s chain of command that was in place during the four-day emergency.
“Our finance office, Department of Purchase and even the Medicaid Inspector General’s Office assisted in the accounting and were there at the emergency operations center but, to my knowledge, no one from the Comptroller’s Office was ever there,” Poloncarz said.
Mychajliw said that is because his offers to provide assistance from his office were rebuffed by the administration. He did acknowledge, however, that unusual expenses are often incurred in emergency situations.
“Ultimately, FEMA will have the final say on whether or not these expenses are justifiable and reimbursible,” said Mychajliw, noting that his office did reach out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has agreed to reimburse the county for its expenses related to the storm.
“We basically wanted to reach out to (FEMA) and have a discussion pertaining to these procedures when it comes to reimbursement,” said Mychajliw. “It’s better to be proactive. You need to look no further than what FEMA tried to do with the October Surprise storm in 2006.
“It was a nightmare when FEMA tried to recoup almost $50 million in funds that were spent on the October Surprise storm,” he added.
Poloncarz, meanwhile, defended the food expenditures, noting that more than 5,000 staff and volunteers were called into service during the four-day storm, including 2,000 volunteers from outside the region.
“Say there was 2,000 people and we spent $20,000 on food, $10 a person is actually a pretty good deal,” Poloncarz said.