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Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke pushes for Transparency and Accountability

Over the past few decades Erie County has increasingly turned to private companies to help taxpayers get the job done better, faster and more cheaply, or at least, that is what is claimed.  In many cities and states across the county government officials, taxpayers and journalists are dealing with a new problem, a complete lack of contractor accountability and transparency.

In one South Carolina instance in 2012, the Jenkinsville Water Company failed to pay state employee payroll taxes (FICA), lost millions of gallons of water, and could not account for tens of thousands of dollars of operating capital.  Alarmed by this mismanagement of funds, residents and journalists submitted an open records request under the freedom of information act to the Jenkinsville Water Company, seeking copies of financial records, including their audited financial records.  The company refused to comply even after the State Attorney General issued and opinion stating the company must disclose the records, forcing the municipality to sue its own water supply company.

The contracts given to private companies often cannot be easily canceled because governments often do not include language that demands specific quality of service, focusing instead on the costs.  This leads to a situation which can cost taxpayers millions more in legal fees to fight lawsuits.  In 2006, the State of Indiana signed a 10 year, $1.6 billion contract with IBM to manage its food stamp and Medicaid eligibility screening.  In that take-over thousands of low-income Indianans were erroneously dumped from the system, including one individual who died in October 2009 of heart ailments more than a year after he was denied Medicaid benefits.  Testifying before the Indiana Legislature, his family said that he was denied assistance after repeatedly mailing in information requested by the Medicaid eligibility contractor.  When the state finally tried to end its contract with IBM after numerous reports of lost paperwork, long delays and wrongly denied benefits, Indiana taxpayers found themselves in court fighting to recover the costs of the contractor’s failure to deliver quality service.

Recently in Erie County, Legislator Patrick B. Burke introduced a law that seeks to address these issues on a local level before they become a problem.  The law titled “The Contractor Accountability Initiative of 2014” seeks to improve the contracting process in Erie County to ensure that government contractors are held to a higher standard of transparency by making all company documents related to a government contract fully accessible to the government and citizens under the Freedom of Information Act.  In addition the law would require that each contract have specific performance criteria written into their contracts with clauses that allow the government to cancel that contract. 

“Oversight of services is one of the most important jobs of government, this law would work to ensure that oversight is in place so that we can get the records to accurately review the true costs of a contractor and hold them accountable for their work,” Legislator Burke explained after introducing the law on May 22nd.  The Local Law is currently under review by the Legislatures Government Affairs committee, but public hearings on the issue are expected to follow soon.