Board member: Cupboard’s bare

TAGHKANIC–Town Board member Joyce Thompson forged ahead last week with her critique of town finances, concluding that the municipality has not depreciated its dilapidated vehicles, has two different versions of the general fund and has failed to properly audit its spending.

This follows the statements last month of a bookkeeper whose firm works for the town, who suggested that the town needs to tighten controls over spending and that the town’s reserves are so low that they’re “scary.”

The town clerk has challenged the accuracy some of Ms. Thompson’s figures, and the topic will once again be on the board’s agenda next month.

Ms. Thompson questioned the town’s money management practices at a special meeting June 22 devoted to the topic town finances. The outcome of that discussion was inconclusive and the subject was not on the agenda for the board’s regular meeting July 7. But as the July meeting drew to a close, Ms. Thompson broached the subject again.

Ms. Thompson, a new member of the board, attended a fiscal training workshop run by the state this spring and then decided to check town records to see whether they conformed to state approved practices. She said at the June board meeting that, on the basis of records provided to her by the town clerk, she found math errors, insufficient reporting and mishandling of reserve funds.

“We have some really serious building and equipment needs, so we need to know what we have,” said Ms. Thompson, referring to the town’s pressing needs for a new highway garage, a state mandated salt shed and two new trucks for the Highway Department.

The town’s bookkeeper, Mark Fitzgerald, was out on medical leave last month, but Brian Fitzgerald, his son, who came to the June meeting, promised to issue more reports for each board member . “All of this information has been available, but nobody has asked for it,” Brian Fitzgerald said at the time.

He said that the town’s bond rating, which determines the interest rate it will pay on money it borrows, is “okay,” but Mr. Fitzgerald called the town’s fund balance “scary low,” adding, “You need to monitor expenditure very closely going out and make sure everybody spends under your budget. You need to look for other sources of revenue.”

At last week’s meeting Ms. Thompson passed out a three-page report she compiled with the help of town resident Martha Meier, based on the new data provided by Mr. Fitzgerald. The report, which detailed her concerns and was distributed to the board and residents during the new business section of the meeting, was not on the agenda and appeared to take other members of the board by surprise.

Ms. Thompson’s concerns include:

*A failure to reevaluate and depreciate town assets over a three-year period. Highway assets show vehicle purchase prices that remain fixed even as discussion of the dire condition of town trucks has become a prominent feature of recent meetings

*Two versions of the general fund report, one given to the board and the other on file with the town clerk, show a discrepancy of annual total revenue amounting to over $28,000. Year end payables indicate that of the $11,596 paid out, only $3,176 was listed as approved by the Town Board as of last January.

*A failure to conduct audits: At the December 28, 2009 year-end meeting, which lasted a little over an hour, meeting minutes indicate that the chief fiscal officer’s report was not presented to the board. A final yearly audit, required by state law, appears not to have been conducted. Town policy calls for an annual independent audit.

The town’s chief fiscal officer is town Supervisor Betty Young.

“I do not know of any such independent audits of the general or highway funds or our investments in the last five years,” said Ms. Thompson in her report. “The usual reason for not getting an audit is cost…   How can we not afford to do it?”

After Ms. Thompson made her report, Supervisor Young asked, “Why didn’t you come to me instead of making a grandstand?”

“Because it’s public, and we are required to be transparent,” responded Ms. Thompson.

“It will be on our agenda next month, and we will go over it,” said Mrs. Young.

Last month the supervisor said that she has been handling the town’s finances for over 20 years.

Shortly after Ms. Thompson’s presentation, the meeting was adjourned, and the public departed. But the five board members remained behind and continued talking, at times in raised voices, for close to 20 minutes. A member of the public who noticed the meeting went back into the town hall and asked if they were still meeting, at which point the town attorney suggested the officials stop.

The state Open Meetings Law prohibits town boards and other official bodies from meeting in private except under a limited number of conditions, such as discussion of the employment of an individual or when a police investigation is involved that affects public safety.

Ms. Thompson said the board had agreed last month to discuss the matter. “It wasn’t intended to be quite such a surprise; it was follow-up,” she said

Town Clerk, Cheryl Rogers said after the meeting that she had found “incorrect figures” in Ms. Thompson’s report that she plans to present them at the next August 2 board meeting.

Ms. Thompson said she is questioning the figures because some of them “don’t make sense. I would be happy to be proven wrong. I don’t want for this to be a fight. I want for it to be a good, open exploration of our numbers so that we can find the right path to take,” she said.

Mrs. Young could not be reached for comment.

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