The city places dozens of orders every year for swag – promotional items and souvenirs. The spending pattern at companies that manufacture swag predates Warren’s tenure.
We would have to request and examine hundreds of invoices to determine exactly how much the city spends on swag. Here is an example of some spending during the first two and a half years of Warren’s first term.
– $448 on key rings
– $3,341 on “Believe” pins
– $8,284 on “Believe” crystals
– $659 on silicone mobile phone cases
– $714 on “Clergy on Patrol” stickers
– $381 on clear coffee mugs
– $151 on imprinted No. 2 pencils
– $765 on golf towels
– $1,715 on hair ties
The city spends tens of thousands of dollars annually at companies that produce promotional items. The city spent at least $30,000 in 2014 and nearly $20,000 in 2015. These totals do not include the nearly $40,000 spent in 2015 at Angry Penguin Productions, mostly on hats and “silk-screened shirts and jackets.” Some of those purchases likely included promotional items.
In the last years of their administrations, Duffy and Richards each spent more than $80,000 at companies that produce swag.
Many governments across the country are cracking down on swag, citing dubious benefits and wasteful spending. The governors of California and Oklahoma have banned swag. President Obama also cut back on swag.
The New York State Constitution forbids municipalities from gifting public funds. Cities can buy gifts of nominal value for retiring workers. But the state doesn’t allow buying gifts in bulk, such as a school buying flowers for all high school graduates. The gift ban can be open to interpretation, and experts suggest not spending tax dollars if there is any doubt. (Here is a good discussion of how the gift ban affects municipalities.)
It’s tempting to excuse spending tax dollars to reward deserving people and organizations. When examining these expenditures, however, it’s important to ask what is the cost and who benefits. If the cost isn’t nominal, the public at large should benefit.
The city spent $2,700 on $20 gift certificates to Claire’s Boutiques. The gift cards went to kids participating in evidence-based youth development programs. The expenditure supports incentives to keep children active and engaged, which benefits the entire city.
Likewise, the city spent more than $1,000 to send children to Rochester Broadway Theater League performances at $10 to $30 a ticket. Providing arts education and opportunities to children benefits the public at large.
But some giveaways have been questionable. Here are some examples:
The city purchased 100 discounted tickets at $15 each for a 2015 boxing event called Throwdown at the Armory III. The city has not yet responded to the portion of our open records request asking who received the tickets. This $1,500 expenditure benefited the promoter and the people who received the tickets. There does not appear to be any public benefit.
The city purchased 100 copies of Cedric Alexander’s book for a promotional event in 2016. He later became deputy mayor. The books have not been placed in any city libraries or used for professional development. Rather, they were given away to residents. Alexander and the small group of residents who received the books benefited from the $1,566 expenditure. There does not appear to be a benefit to the public at large.
The city supports the Black Women’s Leadership Forum, spending more than $4,000 in a one-year period from 2015 to 2016 on event space, catering, plaques, art classes, email, T-Shirts and promotional items. The group started at City Hall, but broke away to become member-based. This unusual and large taxpayer expenditure benefits a small group of adults.
We are waiting for City Hall to tell us who received thousands of dollars in gift cards for Marketplace Mall and Sneaker Villa. There was one purchase of 24 gift cards to Marketplace at $225 each.
Read: Boxing ticket invoice
The City of Rochester spends around $100,000 a year on food, including catering, sandwiches and restaurants. In 2015, the city bought the equivalent of two large pizzas every weekday.
In the first year of the Warren administration, the city spent about $104,000 on food. The following year, it spent $105,000. We don’t have complete food records for 2016 and 2017. Warren’s spending on food is on the same level as the Duffy and Richards administrations.
These food expenditures include:
– $1,125 at El Latino, $1,665 at Unkle Moe’s and $650 at People’s Choice Kitchen for 2015 employee holiday gatherings. (The city also spent $432 on decorations for a 2015 holiday party.)
– $4,193 on Dinosaur Bar-B-Q for a “beach bash” in 2015.
– $1,075 to cater an annual Sister Cities event in 2015.
– $2,375 to cater a volunteer event in 2016.
– $3,993 on Sticky Lips to cater a Department of Recreation and Youth Services staff training event in 2016.
– $3,660 on catering for the Mayor’s Red Carpet Affair in 2016
– $2,550 on Teen Pregnancy Prevention event in 2016
The city’s regulations governing meals and refreshments note, “Prudent use of taxpayer funds is required. The median household income in the city is considerably below that of the average City employee.”
The regulations largely appear to permit spending on all of these activities, and exceptions can be applied for in writing to the Budget Director.
But in other municipalities, some of this kind of spending is unusual or not allowed. In Onondaga County, meal spending on holiday parties, office events, staff training and retreats is prohibited. Refreshments for awards and recognition events must be “nominal.”
Spending thousands of dollars on food, swag and gifts may not seem like a lot in the scheme of a half-billion dollar budget. This kind of spending, however, can undermine faith that city government is spending tax dollars wisely. There’s no doubt the city can cut back on unnecessary and frivolous spending, and put the money to better uses. Some of these expenditures appear prohibited by law.
Here are recommendations for how the city can tighten controls and increase transparency:
- City Council should receive monthly or quarterly reports on smaller-dollar spending.
- The city should tighten its rules for food and swag purchases.
- The city checkbook registry should be posted online, complete with the memo for the reason behind the purchase.
- The city should consider an elected Comptroller position.
About this project
The City of Rochester has a budget of $526 million. Much of that spending takes place out of the public view. There are no line items in the annual budget book for expenditures such as catered lunches or baseball tickets. City Council doesn’t vote on all business grants and loans.
A good way to examine spending – which adds up quickly — is to obtain the city checkbook registry. Through open records requests, we analyzed the city’s checkbook registries for the final years of the Robert Duffy and Tom Richards administrations, as well as all four years of Lovely Warren’s first term.
This process took months, as the registries contain a combined total of nearly a million checks. We flagged about 150 expenditures and filed open record requests for further information, such as invoices, receipts and contracts.
Citizens have a right to know how their tax dollars are spent. They have a right to expect prudent use of tax dollars. They have a right to demand the highest ethical standards. Transparency is the best means to accomplish these goals.
City Checkbook: Political Spending
City Checkbook: Developers Get Grants Without Any Public Scrutiny