State faults county payroll process

HUDSON—It really pays to work for Columbia County, according to an August payroll audit report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller, which found that because the county does not have a good grip on its payroll practices, thousands of dollars were overpaid to employees.

With three exceptions, Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Patrick Grattan (R-Kinderhook) generally agreed with the audit findings, noting in his written response, the county “should adopt comprehensive written policies and procedures outlining County-wide requirements for employee time and attendance and leave accruals.”

District Attorney Paul Czajka, who requested the audit, said in a phone interview this week, this was the second audit he asked the comptroller’s office to perform, but it does not examine the pre-2012 period about which he sought information.

The comptroller’s report is based on an audit covering the payroll practices in the county offices of the district attorney, the public defender, the county attorney, the controller and the clerk to the Board of Supervisors during a 21-month period from January 1, 2012 to October 3, 2013.

The report found that the county “overpaid $18,724 to employees for time not worked or for leave time taken and not charged to leave accruals. We also identified an additional $24,824 in leave taken and not charged to leave accruals that county officials corrected as a result of our audit.”

The situation occurred, the report says, “because none of the departments examined had an effective system for reporting and recording time and attendance. Some county employees are not required to document their hours worked and others report and approve their own attendance and leave records without independent verification and oversight… County officials do not have adequate assurance that employees have worked the hours for which they have been paid.”

Department heads did not require employees to submit formal request forms when time-off was taken, so leave time—available and used—was not properly documented.

The report warns that if county officials do not improve controls over the payroll system, the risk increases that “employees will continue to accrue time not earned and get paid for time not actually worked.”

The audit examined four payrolls totaling $381,619 for the 5 county departments, which have a total of 52 employees. Inadequate separation of payroll processing duties were found in four of the five departments and in three departments payroll registers were not certified by the department head as required.

While looking for absences of part-time attorneys and not-worked holidays that fell within the pay periods tested, the audit found $10,142 for 322 hours paid to these attorneys for hours not worked in the offices of the district attorney, public defender and county attorney.

In another instance, the audit found that an assistant district attorney who quit the DA’s Office in November 2013 was paid $11,046 in unused vacation time and paid leave. Because the attorney’s absences were not properly recorded, the audit found the attorney was paid $8,115 more than he was entitled to.

In his response to the comptroller, DA Czajka wrote that after a recalculation of the vacation, sick and personal time taken by the ADA who resigned, the new figures were emailed to the county Payroll Department seven days before the ADA’s final pay-out check was issued. But because the email was not promptly opened, the erroneous overpayment was made.

“Had Payroll taken into account our recalculation, this employee would likely have received a substantially smaller payment,” the DA wrote, adding that “of all the necessary recalculations, none resulted in overpayment and loss of any county funds except this one, which occurred notwithstanding our timely report.” The resigned employee has been advised of the overpayment and the county is in the process of recovering the funds, the DA wrote.

Mr. Czajka said this week, he had first asked the comptroller to conduct an audit of his office immediately after he was sworn-in in January 2012 to see that all practices and accounts were being handled correctly. Once that “risk assessment”–not an audit–was completed in March 2012, Chief Examiner Christopher J. Ellis wrote that the assessment had involved interviews with DA’s Office personnel, observations and inspection of financial records, reports and various other documents. “Improvement opportunities” had been discussed while the examiner was onsite and the Comptroller’s Office planned to provide no further services to the DA’s Office at that time.

“I thought they had looked at everything, including payroll practices,” said the DA.

In February 2012, allegations were raised and news stories appeared about the number of hours compiled by attorneys working for the County Attorney’s Office prior to 2012.

When the DA received calls to investigate, he contacted the state Comptroller’s Office to audit the payrolls of all attorneys’ offices in the county including his own.

“I asked the best agency with the people capable to do it. They promised me they would and now two years have gone by and they still have not done it,” lamented the DA. “It’s very frustrating waiting this long for that which was promised.”

Chairman Grattan submitted a list of eight responses to the audit setting forth the steps the county has already implemented or is in the process of developing including policies and procedures for time and attendance documentation (start and end times and hours worked), as well as requiring all employees to certify hours worked; separating the duties of payroll data entry and approvals so they are done by different people; and the institution of new compensatory time tracking forms and a formal countywide payroll/leave record retention policy.

“In accordance with the county’s new procedure, the amounts due and owing must be independently verified by three separate departments: the Controller, the department head and Human Resources,” the chairman wrote.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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