Comptroller reports Erie County government spent more than $130,000 on food charged to federal COVID fund

Erie County

FILE (Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw)

ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. (WIVB)–A report by Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw was released on Friday detailing food purchases by the County Executive during the pandemic.

Mychajliw says the food purchases were charged to the $160 million federal COVID fund.

County lawmakers requested further review of COVID expenditures, which Mychajliw says includes more than $3.2 million in overtime and holiday pay costs for Erie County workers.

His report reviewed available receipts and invoices for food purchases from the start of the pandemic, up to July 29.

Mychajliw says the food billed to the Covid fund totaled more than $130,966 over five months. He also says there were 386 different food purchases over approximately 151 days.

Of that $130,966, $19,162 was spent on food delivered to an area hotel rented out by Erie County to house individuals who do not have a safe place to recover from COVID-19, the comptroller says.

“The Erie County Health Department would shut down a bar or restaurant immediately if inspectors caught them serving communal food. That is one way to quickly spread COVID-19. Why is Erie County government doing the same, serving communal food in a way that increases the spread of Coronavirus? The Erie County Health Department has no problem closing restaurants for doing the same exact unhealthy and unsafe handling of food they themselves are doing,” said Comptroller Mychajliw.

He says the report found numerous concerns on how Erie County government spent taxpayer dollars on food including:

  • Erie County purchased “communal food” like sheets of pizza and buckets of chicken wings, despite the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s (AIHA) warnings that sharing communal meals runs a higher risk of spreading COVID-19
  • If the Erie County Health Department can shut down restaurants for serving communal food, why is Erie County government doing the same?
  • Most food purchases were not supported by adequate documentation.  In fact, there was no documentation for $22,000 in food purchases.  Many of the food purchases lack any documentation on where it was delivered, who it was for and what was the purpose of the food order 
  • Even though Erie County government is exempt from paying sales tax, it was charged sales tax for many COVID-19 food purchases
  • Erie County submitted some meal purchases for federal reimbursement that were not within the eligible time frame allowed by the federal government, including groceries purchased before the CARES Act passed
  • Duplicate payments for the same meal orders were made to at least two food providers
  • Many “non-food items” were purchased including pots, pans, cutlery, burners and spatulas
  • The credit card of a Volunteer Fire Company was used for one food purchase, yet the reimbursement check was made out to an individual rather than the Fire Company that paid for it
  • In one instance someone purchased “raw pork chops” and billed it for federal reimbursement to the federal COVID-19 fund, clearly not a prepared meal for employees
  • Erie County paid numerous “paper bag fees” at local stores, rather than utilizing reusable bags
  • Lunch billed to the COVID-19 federal for the Office of County Executive on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th totaling $146.96 billed to the COVID fund with no supporting documentation

While documentation shows at least 10,913 meals were purchased, with 1,911 of them to the local hotel, Mychajliw says it’s impossible to know the exact number of meals purchased because of lack of information in the provided documentation.

He adds that lunch purchases were delivered to the Rath Building and charged to the fund 53 different days at a time of day when essential employees would typically already be at work for their regular shift.

“The Legislature formally requested this information. Our office gathered the data. We completed the report. Now Legislators have guidance as they continue to examine how the Poloncarz Administration spends $160 million in federal COVID funds. This report raises serious questions. Hopefully, lawmakers can get answers to issues that have been raised. I encourage the Legislature to dig deeper to determine whether or not these food purchases are permissible under the law,” Mychajliw added.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz responded to Comptroller Mychajliw’s report this afternoon saying:

“Many dedicated employees contributed to Erie County’s response to the global pandemic, often working 16 to 18 hour days to protect the public. Rather than stay home and be paid without working, they performed essential duties and went above and beyond to assist local residents in need, and during these long days lunch and dinner was provided to our dedicated workforce, as it has been done in the past during various states of emergencies. I am very proud of the efforts of our dedicated staff during a period of time when our region was in need of responsive government action. It is disappointing that the Comptroller has chosen to criticize the feeding of the many hard working employees who spent many long hours working to protect the public and save lives, especially considering the cost of which is a wholly reimbursable expense under federal emergency guidelines.”

Troy Licastro is a digital content producer who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here.

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