Legislators, DA Bump Heads Regarding Swanson’s Vehicle Purchases

File Image. Image by Justin Gould/WNYNewsNow.

MAYVILLE – The Chautauqua County Legislature voted 12-5 in favor of a resolution to increase Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson’s appropriation account by $6,792 in 2019, but numerous legislators who voted both for and against the resolution voiced their criticism of Swanson’s purchases during Wednesday evening’s meeting.

According to the resolution, the 2018 capital vehicle budget for the District Attorney was amended because it was based on purchase prices net of trade-in allowances and there were no trade-in allowances when the new vehicles were purchased. One old vehicle was sold at auction in 2018 and one vehicle was sold at auction in 2019.

County Legislator Lisa Vanstrom (R-District 15) told WNYNewsNow following the meeting that Swanson should have been aware of the price difference.

“He must’ve known that buying an SUV is going to cost more than buying a sedan and, then, times two (one for him, and another for the resolution),” Vanstrom said. Vanstrom, however, said that she hasn’t spoken directly to the District Attorney, himself.

Swanson, in an emailed statement to WNYNewsNow Thursday morning, said, “In that proposal was the request to purchase police model SUV’s. These are not luxury vehicles, these are police model Ford Explorers with All-Wheel drive. That committee recommended and supported our request to purchase two of them. The legislature then approved the Capital Project Committee’s recommendation that the District Attorney’s Office purchase what was requested. To simplify, the Legislature said said YES to the purchase. That was in 2017.

“The last steps of the process are the purchase of the vehicles and the sale of the used vehicles. Purchase orders are submitted to finance and the vendor is paid. The County dictates the method of selling old vehicles; in this case, auction. County Finance gives us assistance on estimates for the resale value at the beginning of our capital project request. In this case, the vehicles sold for less than the estimate, and the 2018 police model SUV’s (the same model in the request) were slightly more expensive than the previous year, when the capitol project was presented. These cost/sale variances are outside the control of the District Attorney’s Office and when the project is put together the numbers are the best estimates available at the time.”

“I’ll be voting ‘no” this evening based on the fact that this purchase was an unbudgeted expense, and it was an inappropriate purchase as was stated from the budget we passed in 2018,” Vanstrom said when the resolution was voted on.

Swanson said, “Rather than reporting that the District Attorney’s Office finished 2018 well under our budget, several members of the Legislature focused solely on a $6K adjustment in my budget for variances in ordinary vehicle purchases.

Legislator Dave Wilfong (R-District 11) said that the DA’s office should be held responsible for the purchase.

“Once again, we have another example of an indiscriminate spending by a government entity,” Wilfong said. “The DA’s office should be held accountable for the overages that were acquired when purchasing the vehicles that were not on budget. It’s just simple math. You can’t spend more than you have.”

“I’m asking each one of my fellow legislators to vote ‘no’ on this resolution, and make the DA’s office absorb this vehicle overcharge into his budget, where it should be.”

Following the meeting, Wilfong told WNYNewsNow that “money doesn’t grow on trees. It’s not my money, it’s the taxpayers money.” Wilfong and Vanstrom said that they “pride themselves” on tracking how money is being used.

Swanson’s response was, “Let me be clear, this office does not control the process of the purchase or sale of any county vehicles. Contrary to what a reasonable person listening to the speaking members might conclude, we do not decide to one day just go buy some cars. There is a lengthy capital project approval process that in this case began in 2017. The protocol and mechanics of those transactions were handled in the ordinary course of county purchasing. That means multiple levels of approval beginning with the presentation to the Capital Projects Committee. That committee provides recommendations to the legislature for a vote.”

Legislator Mark Odell (R-District 7) said that department heads can still make adjustments, but there’s a process the officials should follow.

“Budgets and departmental plans are all expected to be adhered to by all of the various department heads,” Odell said. “If there’s a perceived need to adjust, there is a process to request these adjustments by the legislature before the action is taken, not after the fact, when at all possible, barring emergencies, of course.”

Odell cited County Executive George Borrello’s budget presentation last fall in which Borrello displayed a “bushel full of pennies” theory, a theory in which Odell said Swanson didn’t follow, and the action from the DA was unwarranted. “As a steward of the public trust, I can not support this resolution,” he said.

Swanson replied to the legislators’ criticism by saying, “The legislators speaking out yesterday indicated they wanted the DA’s office held accountable for a process outside of our control. Part of this process they approved themselves. By design or by accident, the legislators’ comments makes it appear that my office was somehow involved in wrong doing. If the point of the legislators’ comments was to find fault with the Capital Projects Committee, the Finance Department or the Legislature, or to suggest that I should have taken the lead in selling the used vehicles, that was not made clear. This truly a head scratcher.

Legislator Terry Niebel (R-District 5) said that he “understands” the concerns of Odell, Vanstrom and Wilfong. However, Niebel added that the resolution is “basically an accounting function that really doesn’t have an affect on his overall budget.”

Niebel, in addition, said that Swanson exceeding his budget was an “oversight that will be addressed going forward.” Niebel voted “yes” on the resolution.

“He knew what his budget was, and he exceeded his budget, knowing that, and here we are,” Vanstrom said. “If it was an accident, I don’t know how it happened because I asked Kathleen Dennison (Budget Director) and (a member of Swanson’s office), ‘Did anyone help him create that budget?’ And it was crafted exclusively by Mr. Swanson with no help.”

Swanson’s stance regarding the budget was similar to Niebel’s.

“Our 2018 budget was $1,768,236, which is less than three percent of the county budget. Due to our sound fiscal management, we finished approximately $61,000 under budget. (That is approximately three-and-a-half percent under budget.) That $6,792 variance represents only 0.3% of our budget and 0.0023% (yes that is 23 ten thousandths of a percent…or 23 one millionths) of the overall $293,661,720 County budget. I ask you how many departments did they criticize yesterday evening? I can tell you…NOT ONE other than our office. Is that by chance? The fact they choose to criticize us on a $6,000 adjustment when we are $60,000 under budget begs the question. Why?

Legislator Kevin Muldowney (R-District 1) said that he would vote “yes.” Muldowney, however, said that he “would’ve liked to have heard from the District Attorney about why this happened” as Muldowney is a member of the Audit & Control Committee.

Legislator John Hemmer (R-District 19) said that he’d vote in favor of the resolution because he believes it’ll affect the DA’s budget based on the resolution’s language.

“I also agree that this resolution points out, clearly, that once again, the District Attorney overstepped his bounds and made a mistake,” Hemmer said. “I think this resolution is structured so that the District Attorney’s budget is affected in the future, so I will be voting for this resolution.”

“This is the first time it’s happened in 20 years with any department head,” Vanstrom said. “How it happened is beyond me because it was an anomaly.”

“Please try to stay within the legal budget that we passed, that’s a legal and binding document, and we are held to strict stipulations to stay within that.”

Wilfong said that, if any department head is confused, they should go speak with Dennison and she’ll help. Wilfong suggested that vehicle purchases could come from a centralized purchasing agreement if department heads are unable to stay within budget.

Vanstrom said it was “their decisions to make,” when asked for comment on the legislature’s approval. The legislator added that the disapproval from her wasn’t political.

“If Larry Barmore (R-County Clerk), or George Borrello (R-County Executive), or anybody on that affiliation (Republican Party) did any of this, I’d be more mad and discouraged by this action,” Vanstrom said.

Swanson said that the process remains “disappointing, but expected.”

“This all, of course, is disappointing, but at this point expected,” Swanson said. “I watched Sheriff Joe Gerace experience the same thing year after year. The fact is that the nonsense needs to stop.”

WNYNewsNow also spoke with Swanson over the phone on Thursday. Swanson said he’s not sure if political differences are leading to the criticism.

“Every month, they’re finding something, and in this case, $6,000 when my office is going to come in $60,000 under budget,” Swanson said. “It certainly begs the question. I don’t know, I’m not in a position to read someone else’s mind, but it certainly begs the question.”

Legislators Bob Scudder (R-District 3) and Elisabeth Rankin (R-District 12) also voted against the resolution.


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