“He’s the one who signs your pension checks,” said state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) to much applause, introducing state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to a full house at the Elmhurst-Jackson Heights Senior Center on Tuesday.
Peralta joined Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and District 39 Assembly candidate Francisco Moya to show support for DiNapoli, who is running for the first time for the office he currently holds.
“He has restored the trust to the office of comptroller,” Peralta said, referring to the scandal scarred office to which DiNapoli was appointed in 2007, after former comptroller Alan Hevesi resigned due to allegations of corruption.
In November, the comptroller will face Republican Harry Wilson, who is vying for the position DiNapoli says he has grown to love.
In addition to managing the state’s pension fund, DiNapoli is responsible for auditing state agencies and public benefit corporations such as utilities and transportation providers. He searches high and low for inefficiency, overcharging and corruption. “What we do in the comptroller’s office is make sure the tax dollars are spent in the right way,” DiNapoli said during an exclusive interview with the Queens Chronicle at the Elmhurst-Jackson Heights Senior Center.
The position of comptroller has become more important than ever, as much of the world finds itself in a financial slump. “People care more now when they hear money is being wasted,” DiNapoli said, yet despite public sentiment, money is still misspent. During his time as comptroller, DiNapoli identified $1.8 billion in cost savings and waste through audits.
Recently, he found over 140 employees at the MTA had doubled their annual pay through use of overtime, causing agency Chairman Jay Walder to develop an overtime reduction plan.
On Tuesday, DiNapoli reported the state’s Medicaid program overpaid $40 million dollars for dental care over a five-year period. He said this expense was one of many that could have been avoided if the Department of Health improved its eMedNY software program and managed payments, so that excessive or unnecessary service could be more easily spotted. “The system has a lot of inefficiencies,” DiNapoli said. He found that the state could have saved $60 million by aligning reimbursements with other state’s levels, so that New York did not pay more for the same services.
While finding inefficiency day after day might be enough to get anyone down, DiNapoli said he doesn’t find his job depressing, but looks at it as a challenge. Despite spending much of his adult life in politics, his goals still seem idealistic: “to make sure what we’re doing is going to root out a bad situation, but most importantly, promote a reform.”
Though DiNapoli said, “the mess with the pension fund was not what I expected,” the state’s fund was recently called the best managed in the nation, a point of pride for the comptroller.
DiNapoli said he wants to encourage the state to focus more on long-term goals than short-term investments. “I think part of what we’re struggling with is this more recent downturn is far more significant than we expected,” he said, predicting that next year’s state budget would have a $7 billion deficit. “Some of the tax increases are not coming in as projected,” he added, referring to the recently passed cigarette tax hike.
DiNapoli has been applauded by legislators for being even keeled and called “Albany Tom” by his opponent, who claims he is in the pocket of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan). Wilson has also accused DiNapoli of conducting audits that are sometimes politically motivated, a claim which his campaign calls baseless and incorrect.
To lay accusations of political allegiances within the office to rest, DiNapoli said “In the future, I recommend we have a special election,” in cases in which a sitting comptroller resigns.
Still, DiNapoli said his previous experience should not be frowned upon. Since he knows how government officials should be spending their money, he said, it is easier for him to do his job. Legislators like Peralta, who served alongside him in the Assembly, value his opinion.
“I think when I make a comment it has even more validity because I come from the Legislature,” DiNapoli said, adding that he is able to act independently, citing his decision to hold up legislators’ checks when the most recent budget was more than four months overdue.
Though the race to hold on to his position may be tough due to anti-incumbent sentiment and deficits in far too many areas of state finances, upon leaving the senior center in Jackson Heights, free of his aides, DiNapoli seemed at ease with and excited about his job. “What would you like me to audit?” he asked.