Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Council Assails Bloomberg Over Money for Elections

New York Times, By MIKE McINTIRE, March 23, 2005

The City Council demanded yesterday that the Bloomberg administration explain why it did not tap $27 million in capital money that was appropriated years ago to improve the city's election system.

Citing technical problems at the Board of Elections that caused frustration and delays for some voters last fall, Bill Perkins, chairman of the Council's Governmental Operations Committee, delivered a letter to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg asking him to draft a plan for using the money to make improvements.

"It is unacceptable that last November's Election Day was marred by poor service while available money remained hidden in your budget," Mr. Perkins wrote. "It is unconscionable that now, after so many months, this matter has not yet been cleared up."

The board's telephone and Internet operations crashed in November, leaving many voters unable to locate their polling places or find other Election Day information. In 2003, the board asked the administration for an additional $1 million in its operating budget to improve its telephone call center and Web site, but the request was turned down.

The operating budget is separate from the capital budget, whose projects are typically financed through borrowing. The New York Times reported last year that the unspent money remained in the capital budget under the heading, "Board of Elections Modernization Project."

But the city had drawn up plans to spend only about a third of the $27 million - on renovations to the board's offices and warehouse space - and elections officials said they were unaware that the remaining $18 million was available for other projects, like the call center and computer servers for the Web site.

Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, said the mayor's budget office had met with elections officials in recent weeks and was "ready to assist them with their plan to address their capital needs and improve their information technologies."

He also took a jab at Mr. Perkins, who in his letter criticized the mayor for not doing enough to "end the bureaucratic buck-passing and take responsibility." Mr. Barowitz said Mr. Perkins acknowledged that he, too, had been unaware of the $27 million capital appropriation, which was approved by the City Council years ago.

"As for the council member's vitriol," Mr. Barowitz said, "it's always bizarre when elected officials are unaware of what's in the budget that they approve."

The Board of Elections functions independently, but relies on the city to finance its operating budget, which this year totaled $75 million.

At a budget hearing this month, the executive director of the board, John Ravitz, said he knew nothing about the additional capital money, and referred Mr. Perkins's committee to another city agency, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. The commissioner of that department, Martha K. Hirst, later testified in the same hearing that the money was available, but that the board and the mayor's budget office needed to agree on a plan for spending it.