Village awaits word from state

CHATHAM–The Village Board held its first Monday night meeting on January 14. The board moved the regular monthly meeting from Thursdays to Mondays so that Village Attorney Ken Dow could attend. This was also the first board meeting after the state Comptroller’s Office and the state Department of Taxation and Finance, along with state police, seized computers and files from the village office Tuesday, January 8.

The state took the village’s files as part of an ongoing investigation after it was discovered that the village did not pay federal or state payroll taxes for a number of years.

About 35 residents attended this week’s meeting, asking questions about village accounting among other issues.

Mayor Tom Curran told the audience, “We can talk about that to some degree but it’s in the hands of the state now.”

Mr. Dow went over a general timeline of events, saying that last summer it became apparent that there were accounting “problems” in the village budget, the biggest issue being the unpaid payroll taxes. He said the Comptroller’s Office was contacted and the state conducted a financial risk assessment. “They were here for a while,” he said of the Comptroller’s Office officials.

He stressed that the risk assessment was not an audit but that the village was encouraging the state to do a “full blown” audit. Then he said the taxation department also visited the village office. He said the taxation office officials did not tell the village what they planned to do. He said the seizing of the computers, including the server, and paper files from the village office was not planned. He said the police and officials “appeared, unannounced.”

Mr. Dow also stressed that the village could only comment on the search warrant for the information taken from the Tracy Memorial Village Hall and not anything else that went on in the village that day. The police and investigators also went to the home of former Village Treasurer Barbara Henry. She told The Columbia Paper that the police took her cellphone and computer. Ms. Henry resigned as treasurer over the summer and the board appointed former Village Accountant Robert Patterson treasurer.

According to the Village Board in statements made about the payroll taxes, the funds withheld to pay those taxes were in a village budget account and have now been paid: $52,104.07 to the IRS and $47,561.90 to the state. But interest and penalties must also be paid on both those amounts. The IRS forgave several thousand dollars in penalties but says the village still owes $18,112. The state has not yet said what the village owes, though it could be about $25,000.

At the meeting, Mr. Dow said the state was conducting a “significant investigation” but that the village did not have much more information and, he did not know what the time frame is for the investigation.

Later in the meeting, Mayor Curran said the board is trying to get a new server and back-up copies of the village’s water and sewer accounting programs so the office can do the billing. He said right now they are using notebooks to keep track of village accounts. Village Clerk Debra Meyers said she has a temporary email address posted on the village website at www.villageofchatham.com. “Everything has been taken,” she said.

Residents had questions about the accounting firm the village used during the time the payroll taxes were not being paid, whether or not insurance would cover the penalties from the state and federal government, and how much all this would cost the village in legal fees and overtime hours for the clerk’s office.

Trustee Mike Wollowitz said the board has not talked to Sickler, Torchia, Allen & Churchill, the accounting firm the board used until March of 2018, but he added, “We’d like to yell at them.” He also said that the board doesn’t know “what questions to ask.”

“We are going through the investigators from now on,” said Mayor Curran.

The board is still looking into whether insurance will cover the penalties.

Resident Melony Spock asked why the former treasurer took over the job of doing the payroll since it had been done by an outside payroll company. The mayor said they Village Board thought it would save the village money to bring that job in-house. The village has returned to using an independent vendor for payroll.

The mayor assured another audience member that the board had much more oversight on the budget now.

Resident Michael Richardson, a Chatham Town Board member and labor consultant who worked with the village on budgeting several years ago, said that if the village had a line-item budget this shouldn’t have happened. “It should have been seen,” he said. “You should have seen at the end of the year that you didn’t spend a line.”

He told the board that they should have seen a budget every month. “As trustees, you’re supposed to be picking this up,” he said.

Resident John Howe, an assistant chief on the village Fire Department, said that he hadn’t seen a monthly budget even though the Fire Department “begged” for one. He said now, with the new village accounting, department heads are looking at an up-to-date budget.

At the very end of the meeting, resident Melanie Hoops said she had not heard an apology to residents from board members. She said she had not the heard the board say: “We’re sorry you guys, we must have missed something.”

She said no one has expressed “any kind of remorse or accountability.”

“Ultimately we are responsible,” said Mayor Curran.

Also at the board meeting:

• Mayor Curran read a letter from state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation saying the village received a $200,000 Regional Economic Development Council grant for work on the Tracy Memorial. Mayor Curran called it “a real feather in our cap.” The mayor said the board will be working with the Friends of the Tracy, a not-for-profit group.

Members of the Friends of the Tracy board were at the meeting to announce a celebration they are planning for February 15 at the Tracy from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. to kick-off a year of celebrating Chatham’s 150th anniversary. The board authorized $400 from the celebration budget line to help fund the event

• The board is looking into federal Community Development Block Grants for upgrades to the village water and sewer system. Mayor Curran urged residents to participant in a survey that may be mailed to them to help with the grant. Awards are based on village property owners’ income levels.

There were residents who voiced concerns about their water bills. Board members talked about water bills going up to pay for the debt service on the sewer plant and the age of the water pipes in the village

• The board will hold a public hearing on a franchise agreement with Consolidated for cable television at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, February 11 before their next regular meeting. The regular meeting will start at 7 p.m.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email

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