Unraveling the $25M political mystery





March 9, 2005, 7:51 PM EST


It's the $25 million mystery.


Millions of dollars that could be used to replace archaic voting machines, improve a telephone hot line and a poorly run Web site have been set aside for the Board of Elections for many years. But the board's executive director, John Ravitz, said he knows nothing about it.


Martha Hirst, commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, told City Council this week that the capital money has been available for years in her agency's budget.


After an initial published report, Ravitz told City Council he had no knowledge of the funds despite an existing plan to spend $7.5 million to modernize Board of Elections offices.


"The New York City Board of Elections does not have a capital budget," Ravitz told Newsday on Monday.


During questioning at a Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Hirst explained that $7.5 million is earmarked for office renovations at the board's Manhattan and Queens offices. She also said the remaining $17.5 million in capital funds is available provided the Board of Elections and the Office of Management and Budget put forward a plan to spend it that has mayoral support, she said.


After insisting Ravitz had to be aware of the capital budget since it was being used, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg said yesterday that the city's Office of Management and Budget will meet with Ravitz's staff this week to discuss a plan for the $25 million.


"In numerous conversations, they sure as heck never said, 'Hey, John, what about that pot of money we have for you to use?'" Ravitz said Monday.


Ravitz was not available for comment Wednesday.


Councilman Bill Perkins (D-Harlem), who chaired the meeting, said he was perplexed at the conflicting statements about the money's existence.


"It's strange; it's a mystery. Somebody needs to account for this," Perkins said. "No one seems to suggest it doesn't exist. Either one pleads ignorance or one pleads knowledge."


Doug Turetsky, a spokesman for the Independent Budget Office, said the money is identified in the fiscal 2006 capital budget and includes an allocation for the modernization project.


Ravitz testified in the hearing that in addition to the $75 million operating budget, he needed $15 million to cover a much-needed $850,000 telephone upgrade and other projects.


The money could have alleviated the severe problems last year in which Election Day calls to the board's hot line were not answered and its Web site was out of order, he said.


The capital money was apparently held over from a decade-old plan to renovate voting machines, which has been abandoned, but remains in DCAS' budget.


Copyright 2005, Newsday, Inc.




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