Board trims West Ghent fire budget

GHENT–At the Town Board meeting last week a local citizen in attendance requested clarification concerning the amount of money allocated for the West Ghent Volunteer Fire Company in the town’s 2018 budget. The town set aside $10,000 less than was requested by the company.

Town Supervisor Michael Benvenuto then read out loud a letter written on behalf of the Town Board to the fire company, explaining that in light of recent events, the Town Board believed that $100,000 would be sufficient for the Fire Company to carry out their duties.

“Over the course of the last two years, the Office of the State Comptroller has been conducting an audit and investigation of the Company” the board’s letter reads in part. “This summer the OSC audit and investigation resulted in criminal charges against a former treasurer of the company. In August, the former treasurer received a criminal sentence and was ordered to pay restitution after pleading guilty to Falsifying Business Records in the First Degree.”

Mr. Benvenuto continued reading from the letter, which states that after the release of the comptroller’s audit, the Town Board believes the Fire Company “has substantial reserves,” and “even though the company will receive $10,000… less from the Town of Ghent in 2017, there will still be money left to transfer to reserve.”

No representatives of the fire company were present at the meeting to respond to the letter. But an unsigned notice saying it came from the West Ghent Volunteer Fire Company was sent by email to The Columbia Paper November 4, 2017. The notice was addressed to the residents of the Town of Ghent “currently serviced by the West Ghent Fire Protection District.”

The email acknowledges that the Town Board’s proposed budget would cut $10,000 from the amount provided last year. It says that the Fire Company is a contractor hired by the town for fire protection services and says, “should the Town of Ghent insist on this reduction, we will not be able to provide fire protection to your properties.”

The phone number of the fire company is in the notice. A phone message left at that number by The Columbia Paper was not returned before press deadline.

The audit by the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC), was released earlier this month. It details the embezzlement by the former treasurer and faults the lack of “adequate oversight of Company financial activities” by the company leaders. The audit also contains 14 steps the company should take to improve its financial management.

A response from the current chief of the West Ghent Volunteer Fire Company, Arthur Sherman, appears at the end of the audit. Chief Sherman’s responded to each of the comptroller’s recommendations with steps the fire company has taken to implement recommended changes.

In his letter to the OSC, Chief Sherman also says that when the embezzlement happened, “the company lacked serious active roles by previous Trustees and Board Members.” But he goes on to say, “The majority of the recommendations have been in place since we first met with the NYS Comptrollers in April 2015, with the exception of a few minor verbal recommendations. We were just made aware of these, and they are only verbal recommendations. The Corrective Action Plan will continue to be implemented by the Board of Trustees.”

The OSC audit report on the Fire Company is available online at osc.state.ny.us.

Supervisor Benvenuto and board members received compliments from members in the audience for the way they have handled this matter.

At the November 16 meeting the board approved the town budget for the year 2018.

Also at the meeting:

• It was announced that there will be a Christmas tree lighting on December 1 at the Town Hall on Route 66, at 6 p.m. All are welcome to attend

• Councilwoman Patti Matheney, also a member of the county Broadband Committee, said of promises by communications companies to upgrade internet service, “We see the trucks, but we can’t seem to get a timeline for when we’ll get access.”

The next Town Board Meeting will take place on December 21 at 7 p.m. Prior to the meeting, the Town Board will hold multiple public hearings for the renewal of contracts with local fire departments. These hearings will be held 15 minutes prior to the main meeting.

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