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No picnic for state taxpayers

Let's see, the state is $2.1 billion in the red, just three months into the fiscal year.

Hey, let's have a picnic!

Let's hold it in Niagara Falls, but invite folks from all over -- Buffalo, Grand Island, the Town of Tonawanda.

Let's tell everyone by printing and mailing notices via first-class mail.

And let's do it at taxpayer expense.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the picnic hosted Wednesday by State Senator Antoine Thompson.

I was one of the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of registered voters in his 60th Senate District to receive a mailed invitation earlier this week inviting me to a cookout in Hyde Park. Me, I live in North Buffalo. A buddy who lives on the West Side received one too.

ThompsonCookout2


We received our invitations not a day too soon. It landed in my mailbox Monday, just two days before the event. It gave me and other recipients barely enough time to figure out which lawn chair to bring and pair of shorts to wear. 

There are 161,550 active registered voters in the district. With first class postage going for 41 cents a pop, I sure hope not everyone received an invitation. That would come to, let's see, $71,082, plus the cost of printing. And don't forget about the cost of the picnic itself, which was "free and open to the public," according to the invitation. 

I called Thompson's office Thursday afternoon to see how the picnic went. I was told by Heather Zeisz, his press secretary, that about about 200 people attended.

Zeisz at first said she believed every household in the district received an invitation, at least in Niagara Falls, although she wasn't sure how many were mailed as opposed to simply handed out. She later said "a few thousand" were mailed, but she wasn't sure of the number.

I asked her how the senator could justify this kind of expense, especially given the state's fiscal condition.

Said Thompson's press secretary: "I don't speak for the senator." 

Don't speak for the senator?

"I only give statements based on what he is saying," she said.

Ah, OK.

Zeisz gave me a call back a little later to say she has spoken with her boss -- who was unavailable to answer questions from me directly -- and wanted to relay that he's "a strong supporter of constituent relations and constituent outreach. This was just another event to increase participation."

Nothing about costs, besides the invitation comes out of the senator's mail budget. In a story I wrote last October, I calculated that Thompson spent $107,579 for the last year that data was available.

That's some $2,000 a week, folks.

With no hard figures on the cost of this particular mailing, I decided to punch a few numbers into my calculator.

Let's see. If Thompson dropped $5,000 in printing, postage and picnic food and supplies, and he got 200 people to show up, the cost works out to $25 per head.

Kind of a pricey picnic, wouldn't you say?

At $10,000, the cost is $50 a head.

How about $20,000? You see where I'm headed.

Then again, people have spent a lot more money of late to break bread with Thompson.

Why, just last month, he helped to host a fund-raiser at the Buffalo Chophouse in which fat cats paid $5,000 per head to chow down with Thompson and other Senate Democrats, including Malcolm Smith and our very own Bill "Stickin' with Stachs" Stachowski.

Of course, they slipped in behind a curtain to shield themselves from protesters who, in Thompson's words, were "out there performing."  In the same breath, the senator informed a reporter that he is a "man of the people."

Well, maybe, Antoine.

If nothing else, you've reminded us that it's no picnic being a taxpayer in the Empire State.

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Politics | State government
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