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Monroe County legislators add 'pork-barrel' fund to Bello's budget

Dec 9, 2020

In a 20-9 vote, Monroe County legislators approved an amendment to the 2021 budget that would create a $2.5 million “community contingency fund” over which they would have almost total discretion.

The nine legislators that voted against the amendment, all of them Democrats, argued that the change would amount to an election year slush fund. All 29 seats in the county Legislature are on the ballot in 2021.

“There is nothing to stop legislators from submitting legislation for their individual funding proposals,” said Legislator Yversha Roman, leader of the nine-member Democratic caucus. “Instead, the GOP set up a pork-barrel spending program during a time of crisis.”

Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew introduced the amendment the moment legislators began debating County Executive Adam Bello’s proposed $1.2 billion spending plan, which he released on November 5. Brew argued that legislators know their districts more intimately than the county administration and said that the fund would enable the legislature to be more responsive to community needs and unexpected circumstances, such as the coronavirus pandemic.

“It would have to pass the test of being beneficial to the Monroe County community as a whole,” Brew said.

Any allocation from the fund would require approval from a simple majority of legislators, Brew added. The money for the fund would be redirected from various county departments and would come from allocations for things such as travel expenses, cell phone costs, and salaries for vacant positions. It would also draw $700,000 from county reserves.

Brew said the Bello administration cooperated on the amendment’s development.

All 14 Republican legislators voted for the amendment. So did the five members of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, who echoed Brew’s reasoning for the fund. Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, the leader of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, said that the fund provides an opportunity to provide services and resources to city residents and neighborhoods the county has neglected for a long time.

“The county executive is one person and he is probably going to do the best he can, but he doesn’t know our communities and our districts better than we do,” Flagler-Mitchell said. “And it would be really irresponsible if we did not have means to be able to help our constituents when the need is needed.”

The measure to create the fund was one of two budget amendments adopted Tuesday by a 20-9 vote. The other amendment reversed proposed changes to Democratic staff in the county Board of Elections, which has been the subject of a prolonged dispute among Legislature Democrats.

All 29 members of the legislature voted in favor of the amended budget, though Bello refused to immediately sign it. Bello now has roughly two days to return the budget to the Legislature either with his signature or with any objections he has to the amendments.

Under the county charter, if Bello objects to any amendment the Legislature can override it, as long as 17 legislators — a three-fifths majority — vote to do so. If the GOP and the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus were to vote in a bloc, just as they did Tuesday, they’d be able to override any objections.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.