Editor’s Note: The following is the first part of a two-part series looking at the county vehicle usage practices by 19th District congressional candidate and Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro. The second part of this series will run Tuesday, Aug. 2.
In early 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic first ravaged the state, the Dutchess County Comptroller’s office flagged and prevented the buying of a new vehicle for County Executive Marcus Molinaro.
Molinaro, the Republican nominee for the 19th Congressional District special election on Aug. 23 and the general Nov. 8 election, had attempted to purchase a new vehicle three years early under the incorrect county department.
The Dutchess County Comptroller’s Office is auditing all assets, policies and procedures about every vehicle in the county’s fleet after the office has received increased questions about officials’ practices and payments with county-issued vehicles, Dutchess Comptroller Robin Lois said.
That and an increased number of questions from constituents and multiple public record requests about Molinaro’s county-issued vehicle recently pushed the office to commence the evaluation. The audit report is expected to be released by the end of 2022, but not before the November election.
“We’ve been looking at some of the payments and had questions from various sources,” Lois said. “We’ve been trying to find particular policies and procedures in place, and some of them seem to either not be existing or be different among different departments.”
A lead auditor, senior auditor, director and the comptroller oversee a county audit. The vehicle audit will involve extensive testing and validating of multiple assets of each vehicle in every county department, and is more labor intensive than other audits the county typically conducts.
A lease of the county executive’s has raised questions among comptroller staff and auditors.
Lois has received various questions about Molinaro’s county-issued vehicle, she said, including why he drives a luxury SUV on Dutchess taxpayers’ dime.
Dutchess County taxpayers have paid more than $17,500 for the car’s monthly payments over the past year to lease a luxury SUV issued to Molinaro, who drives a 2021 black Chevrolet Tahoe Premier — a top-of-the-line sport utility vehicle — for $1,347.10 a month from the county’s coffers.
The base price of the vehicle was $73,625.10, and $80,463.20 after fees, according to the motor vehicle invoice from Ingersoll Auto of Pawling that Johnson Newspaper Corp. obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.
“The county executive is provided an SUV for the purposes of responding 24 hours a day, seven days a week during emergencies and otherwise,” Molinaro said.
“It is customary and common practice for municipalities to issue vehicles to certain administrators.”
A Dutchess County family’s median household income was $81,842 in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A two-bedroom apartment in Dutchess County cost an average of $1,449 per month, and $1,260 for a one-bedroom, according to the county’s 2020 rental housing survey.
The executive’s sport utility vehicle is leased to Dutchess County, with payments coming from the Auto Center, the department that oversees the county’s vehicle fleet, within the county’s $532.7 million adopted 2022 budget. The four-year lease was signed by Dutchess County Department of Public Works Commissioner Robert Balkind on Feb. 24, 2021 when the new vehicle had 309 miles. It expires Feb. 24, 2025, or after 100,000 miles. Balkind and Deputy County Executive William O’Neil also signed an addendum to the lease.
The county executive noted it’s common for municipal leaders to have a county-issued vehicle, but acknowledged his vehicle is expensive.
“I respect the taxpayers for providing me the vehicle necessary to do this job,” Molinaro said.
Molinaro, 46, has driven five county-issued vehicles since becoming the seventh executive of Dutchess County on Jan. 1, 2012.
The county executive insisted his leased 2021 Tahoe is on par with his past vehicles over the last decade as county executive, but his latest SUV is more than two times more expensive to county taxpayers each month than previous vehicles.
Molinaro had a 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee when he first took office, costing $558.83 per month — on par with the monthly cost of other county and law enforcement vehicles in the county fleet at the time.
The 2012 Cherokee cost a total of $19,559.05 from February 2012 through January 2015. The county has paid $20,205 for the 2021 Chevy Tahoe over the past 15 months.
The executive’s next vehicle, a 2013 Ford Explorer, was the most expensive in the county’s fleet at the time at $69,012. One other law enforcement vehicle in the fleet, a 4×4 full-size SUV with K-9 and police lighting, could compare in price at $65,502.
Molinaro added he does not charge his tolls or cell phone bills to the county, or rarely puts in for other travel costs.
“It is true I have an SUV that is equipped to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week and snowstorms during emergencies,” the Dutchess executive said. “That is the standard for nearly every chief executive in the state. There are some that hire deputies to drive them. I don’t do that. There are some with security staff. I don’t do that.”
Molinaro first tried to purchase his new vehicle as a bond charged for the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Children & Family Services and Public Defender vehicles — a potential mismanagement of county funds, but not a violation of local policy.
Officials in the county comptroller’s office denied the purchase order in late winter 2020.
“The CE is not a law enforcement officer, nor is his vehicle registered as such,” former Dutchess Deputy Comptroller Karl Schlegel wrote in an email March 5, 2020 to other county employees obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. “Not only can this vehicle not be charged to this bond, and I question the use of this bid to purchase a vehicle for this department…Additionally, according to Auto Center records, the county executive is currently issued a 2018 vehicle with a five-year life. Why is his vehicle being replaced within two years?”
Schlegel did not receive a response.
Molinaro was issued a 2018 Chevy Tahoe with a five-year life and attempted to purchase the newer vehicle three years early.
“We have confirmed we will not be ordering that vehicle this year,” according to former county Budget and Finance Director Mary Aldrich in an email dated March 31, 2020 — a few weeks into the initial coronavirus outbreak when public finances became uncertain.
The COVID-19 pandemic prevented the purchase for an additional year. The county leased for Molinaro’s new 2021 vehicle in March 2021 when the financial outlook stabilized. Lease approvals do not go through the county comptroller’s office, circumventing other administrative review.
“It seems excessive and unnecessary,” Lois said of the cost of the executive’s vehicle agreement. “Particularly when compared to the rest of the county vehicles that are in use and the cost of those vehicles.”
Lois said the comptroller’s office denying the request to purchase the vehicle under the sheriff’s office was the correct decision.
“It’s our job to make sure that that asset purchases are properly approved, and so we did not see this vehicle on that approved list, so we did reject that purchase order,” Lois said.
Dutchess does not have a countywide lease policy.
Lois said the comptroller’s office is considering recommending a new county policy about leasing vehicles to county employees.
Changes to county policy are recommended to the executive and county administration, who accept or deny it. Policy changes do not go through the Legislature.
“When the comptroller identifies deficiencies with fiscal policy, this administration takes it very seriously and has on many occasions implemented her recommendations,” Molinaro said.
During a telephone interview, Molinaro would not answer if he instructed the Auto Center to purchase the top-of-the line Tahoe,
“I ask for and continue to have access to an SUV,” he said, before referring the question to the county communications office.
Dutchess County Communications Director Colleen Pillus stressed the county executive participates in hundreds of meetings and events across the county, traveling expansive numbers of miles each year.
“The county executive’s current vehicle, a 2021 Chevy Tahoe, was selected as it meets the needs of the county executive’s role and responsibilities and serves well as a mobile office, allowing the county executive, as well as other county officials, to be available 24/7 – as much of the county executive’s responsibilities extend beyond his physical office or traditional office hours,” Pillus said in a statement.
County vehicles are typically purchased through a bond agreement. All departments are supposed to annually file requests for vehicle purchases to be bought together on one bond. The Legislature approves the vehicle purchases as one bond resolution.
The comptroller’s office reviews the vehicle purchases. Molinaro’s new vehicle was not on the list of planned vehicle purposes, giving the comptroller’s office grounds to reject it, Lois said.
It’s not something the Legislature would catch, the comptroller added.
“They’re getting the budget approval on the front end, and then it’s up to us,” Lois explained. “It’s up to the controller’s department to adhere to what that is.”
The price of the county executive’s current vehicle is in the wake of two previous accidents during his tenure.
Molinaro’s luxury SUV — and his past county vehicles — have a law enforcement package of emergency lights, sirens and additional window tinting installed.
Molinaro initially kicked off his congressional campaign last September to unseat former U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado. Delgado, a Democrat, became the state’s lieutenant governor in May.
The Aug. 23 special election between Molinaro and Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, a Democrat, will take place using the old 19th District lines, which will change for the Nov. 8 election due to redistricting. The former lines lean stronger favoring Republican candidates.
Molinaro said he does not drive his county-issued vehicle to campaign across the 11-county district.
Molinaro’s campaign fundraising for the district reports $996,000 cash on hand, compared to $575,000 for Ryan’s campaign on the Democratic ticket, according to the June 30 filings with the U.S. Federal Elections Commission.
Ryan is a decorated former U.S. Army captain who served two combat tours in Iraq. In response to Molinaro’s decisions to have a luxury vehicle on the backs of taxpayers, he drew comparisons to lessons learned in the military
“In the Army, I learned that officers eat last,” Ryan said. “Leaders must always put their team and their mission before themselves, and as county executive, I still carry that lesson with me. Marc’s actions are the exact opposite and show his willingness to blatantly and repeatedly put his own financial, political and personal interests ahead of those he was elected to serve.”
The new boundaries of the 19th Congressional District include all of Columbia, Greene, Delaware and Ulster counties, and parts of Dutchess, Albany, Renssealer, Schoharie, Sullivan, Montgomery, Otsego and Broome counties, representing 698,673 people, according to New York Redistricting & You data.
Molinaro lost his 2018 gubernatorial challenge to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who defeated the Dutchess County Republican by 1.4 million votes and securing 59.6% of the ballots.
Molinaro served as a state assemblyman for the 103rd District from 2006 until he became Dutchess county executive in 2012, and was replaced by Assemblywoman Didi Barrett.
Molinaro is running to represent the 19th District in both the special and November general elections. Ryan is running for the 19th District in the special election and then for the redrawn 18th District on Nov. 8.
Part 2 of this two-part series will publish Aug. 2 and delve deeper into Molinaro’s car usage practices during his decade-long tenure as the Dutchess County executive and on the campaign trail.