By Tim Knauss Published on October 9, 2015 www.syracuse.com
Each year since he was elected in 2011, Syracuse City Auditor Marty Masterpole has told the city council that he planned to complete 11 or 12 audits. Each year, he produced four.
The candidate who is running against Masterpole this year, Howie Hawkins, says that is not enough.
Hawkins, who plans to hold a news conference today at city hall, said his campaign message is simple: "Marty Masterpole is not doing the job expected and spelled out in the city charter and the city budget. And I will.''
Masterpole counters that he has been an effective auditor, although he approaches the job differently than some of his predecessors. He said he aims for "quality over quantity.''
In a 2012 audit, Masterpole says he identified a way for the city to save about $3 million a year in healthcare costs. His more recent audits have not resulted in significant savings.
Masterpole, 42, a Democrat, is a former city councilor and county legislator who first won the auditor's job in 2011. During that campaign, his Republican opponent, Steve Kimatian, alleged that Masterpole's friendship with Democratic Mayor Stephanie Miner would prevent him from being an effective watchdog. Masterpole told voters an auditor does not have to be adversarial to be effective.
Hawkins, 62, a Green Party candidate, works unloading trucks at United Parcel Service. He has run for office more than 20 times. He has never won, but Hawkins pulled in 5 percent of the vote last year when he ran for governor.
Hawkins is not the first person to question Masterpole's output. Several city councilors, including Pam Hunter, Jake Barrett and Kathleen Joy, said councilors asked Masterpole during his most recent annual budget meeting why he did not write more audits. His predecessor, Phil LaTessa, normally issued about twice as many.
"That was an issue,'' Joy said. "If you looked at the total number, versus the total of previous years, there were fewer.''
Hawkins notes that the city budget routinely calls for the auditor to file eight financial audits and three special projects. Typically, Masterpole has completed two of each.
Masterpole said he submits those goals to the council each year as hopeful targets. He is not required to meet them.
"I could have projected lower, and gone higher,'' Masterpole said. "It was my wish list of where I hoped to get, and we didn't.''
Not all of his work ends up in a written report, Masterpole said. He said he is happy to work behind the scenes to make the city operate more efficiently.
For example, Masterpole said his office successfully increased payments to the city from Clinton Square festival organizers after asking to review their invoices from alcohol distributors. The city had previously relied on the festivals to report their own alcohol sales, from which the city collects a surcharge, Masterpole said. That effort, which increased revenues by as much as $70,000, was never written up in a report or audit.
"I could have put up (a written report) every year on the Clinton Square festivals,'' he said. "If me or my office has a weakness, maybe it's that we don't boast enough.''
Thus far in 2015, Masterpole has audited the city asphalt plant; cash and investment records; compliance of city vendors with the living wage ordinance; and the Greater Syracuse Land Bank. The land bank audit was done in cooperation with the county comptroller.
Including Masterpole, there are only three employees in the auditor's office, the smallest staff the office has had, at least in recent history. Masterpole said he's proud of what they accomplish with limited resources.
There are unused resources available to him. In July 2014, the city council added about $40,000 to Masterpole's budget so that he could hire another auditor. He has not filled the position. He said he might fill it if he finds the right person.
"I haven't advertised for it, because I just didn't see the need, quite honestly,'' he said.
Syracuse has pressing problems like poverty, broken water pipes and failing schools, Hawkins said. He criticized Masterpole for auditing things like cash handling procedures at city skating rinks and golf courses. Those audits, conducted in 2012 and 2013, uncovered no problems.
"With all the problems the city faces – high poverty, failing infrastructure, struggling schools – he chose to see if the money's where it's supposed to be with those things,'' Hawkins said. "The ice rink and the golf course were not high priorities, as far as I'm concerned.''
Masterpole agreed that those two audits were routine. He said they were follow-ups to audits performed by his predecessor, to see whether the problems identified in previous audits had been corrected.
Masterpole said he has also undertaken some high-impact audits, including his 2012 report on health care benefits for city employees. For that audit, he employed Ken Mokrzycki, a former deputy mayor, on a part-time basis.
Their report recommended that Syracuse implement a Medicare Part D Employer Waiver Plan, which had become available the year before, to reduce prescription drug costs for retirees. City officials followed the recommendation and expect to save about $3 million a year, Masterpole said.
The auditor's job pays $53,101 per year. Hawkins and Masterpole are the only candidates for auditor this year.