A State Supreme Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by County Comptroller Elliot Auerbach against County Executive Mike Hein and the County Legislature, ruling that budget cuts to the comptroller’s office included in the 2017 county budget did not violate the law.
Auerbach, along with county residents Jennifer Fuentes and Steven Greenfield, filed the suit last year after county lawmakers approved a 2017 budget that included a $100,000, or 10 percent, reduction in the Comptroller’s Office budget. (Hein had sought a 20 percent reduction.) Some of the money was shifted to a “legislative audit unit” to pay for independent audits of county departments and programs.
Auerbach claimed that the cuts were intended to hamstring his ability to perform his duty as a watchdog on county finances and were enacted as retaliation for his scrutiny of spending by the Hein administration. To support the claim, Auerbach’s suit included affidavits from county lawmakers (and frequent Hein critics) Dave Donaldson and John Parete. The suit also included statements from comptrollers in Albany and Onondaga counties who testified that the kind of cuts experienced by Auerbach’s office hindered independence and had a chilling effect on investigations.
The defense argued that the lawsuit was simply an attempt to “litigate a political dispute” and overturn the outcome of a lawful budget process. Defendants claimed the shifting of funds to the legislative audit unit was justified in an extensively researched report on county spending prepared by the county’s commissioner of finance.
State Supreme Court Judge Richard Mott sided with the defense in dismissing all of Auerbach’s claims.
“Because petitioners have failed to demonstrate a likelihood of ultimate success on the merits or the existence of justiciable [subject to trial in a court of law] controversy, neither a preliminary injunction nor a declaratory judgment is warranted.”
Hein praised Mott’s ruling and his decision not to award attorney fees to Auerbach’s team. Hein went on to cite a “lengthy and thoughtful analysis” of appropriate funding for the Comptroller’s Office.
“It is my great hope that the comptroller now moves away from petty politics and embraces his responsibility to serve the people,” Hein wrote in a March 29 press release. “The undeniable truth is with meritless lawsuits like this and other unnecessary actions, the comptroller is running the risk of costing county taxpayers far more than he has ever saved them.”
In his own statement, Auerbach described the lawsuit as a “message” that he intended to defend his office’s independence and ability to safeguard taxpayer funds. “Our goal was not to be forced away from identifying financial blind spots simply because they were controversial or politically correct,” wrote Auerbach.