Tom DiNapoli might be the most popular politician in New York. In the last election, the incumbent state comptroller got 3,727,000 votes, which was roughly 400,000 more votes than the gubernatorial record set by Andrew Cuomo.
This is puzzling only because the average citizen has, at best, a vague idea of what a comptroller actually does. It is an important job, but most people are clueless that DiNapoli manages the state’s stupendous public retirement fund, conducts governmental audits, and oversees other stuff critical to the fiscal needs and wants of the body politic.
So what is DiNapoli’s secret? I have a simple theory.
It’s the other stuff.
DiNapoli plays a unique role: As custodian of the state’s Office of Unclaimed Funds, he has the distinct pleasure of helping people find lost money — and then returning it to them. Think of it as a gigantic sofa filled with millions upon millions of forgotten nickels, dimes, and quarters wedged between the cushions. There is $15.5 billion waiting to be collected — and by the most recent tally, more than $276 million of that covers approximately 475,000 account records in Westchester County. (New York County leads the state’s 62 counties, with $1.7 billion in unclaimed funds while Hamilton County, in the Adirondacks, is last, with $377,206.)
Unclaimed funds are typically dormant bank accounts or uncashed paychecks. Most of the unclaimed funds amount to $100 or less, but sums do reach into the thousands of dollars and occasionally somebody successfully lays claim to a lottery-sized bonanza. A record $8.2 million was collected by an heir to an estate.
The Unclaimed Funds Office is nothing new, but ever since he first took office in 2007, DiNapoli has aggressively publicized its existence and with the help of digital technology has made it easier and quicker for people to get their money. Leading up to Election Day, his calendar of “outreach events” was filled with public appearances to educate New Yorkers on the unclaimed-fund program. The comptroller’s office periodically holds unclaimed fund TV telethons and shows up every year at the state fair.
If a claim is substantial, DiNapoli will ceremoniously hand over a jumbo check, similar to the kind handed to recipients of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes (sans Ed McMahon, of course). At a press conference last summer, DiNapoli smiled broadly and posed for photographs with Westchester County Executive George Latimer as he handed him a giant $20,000 check — money that was owed the county for some reason. Twenty grand seemed a mere drop in the bucket when the county was facing a $28.7 million deficit, but then every nickel and dime matters.
The media flocks to these joyous occasions. Poignant stories about found money, like the one about a homeless Staten Island man who came into $10,000, are recognized as instant, Internet clickbait. The key element to all these unclaimed-fund stories is the underlying message that, in effect, “You too may already be a winner!”
The results of DiNapoli’s effort are written in dollars and cents. While the state returned $194 million a decade ago, the annual amount has steadily risen, culminating with an all-time high of $460 million for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Talking with DiNapoli recently, it was obvious he understood that assisting in an unexpected windfall, even a small one, is good politics and remembered at the voting booth.
“The comptroller’s office is often very mysterious and remote to people,” he told me. “But certainly this is something that everyone can relate to, and certainly if we’re holding all these accounts, shouldn’t we step up the opportunity and create a more proactive strategy on letting people know about the program and reuniting them with their money?”
He gets no argument from me. Right around the time I talked to DiNapoli, I was smacked with an unexpected car repair that cost me $600. For the hell of it, I went to the unclaimed fund search page, at www.osc.state.ny.us/ouf/, and typed in my name. To my surprise an account for my late father came up. It turned out he was owed $1,100, which I will split five ways with my siblings.
Found money. Not a lot, but hey…
DiNapoli hears stories like this all the time.
“People sometimes say, ‘Oh, thank you,’ like we’re giving them a gift,” he said. “I always try to explain that we’re just giving back what was yours rightfully.”
Maybe so. But he got my vote.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org