Comptroller’s follow-up audit notes failure to comply in Berne

Enterprise file photo — Noah Zweifel

Berne Supervisor Dennis Palow at the town’s 2022 reorganizational meeting.

BERNE — The Berne Town Board is still failing to provide adequate oversight of town spending and bookkeeping despite specific recommendations made in 2021 on how to do so, according to a follow-up audit report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller. 

Supervisor Dennis Palow appears to have lied to state officials about the actions he had taken to provide proper oversight, and had claimed that he was unaware of the recommendations of the 2021 audit because he did not read the report even though he was the deputy supervisor at that time, the report says. 

In total, the comptroller’s office had made 11 recommendations following an audit that found that the board mismanaged town finances. Eight recommendations were made to the town board, and three were made to the supervisor, each related to the review of financial decisions. These included, for example, keeping an eye on credit-card statements to ensure that payments are made on time, and conducting audits of various departments to ensure that finances are being handled properly.

Of the 11 recommendations, the board failed to make any progress at all towards implementing eight of these. Two recommendations were implemented partially, and only one — that the board should review and sign claims before board meetings and vote to approve them — was implemented fully.

The report notes:

— Bank reconciliations were not completed on time;

— Claims were paid prior to board review;

— Authorizations were made based on abstracts that had incorrect dollar amounts;

— Credit cards were not paid on time, resulting in late fees and interest charges; and

— The town’s bookkeeper and building department were not audited.

The audit also found errors in the bank reconciliations for the month of August, specifically:

— $2,771 in debit-card purchases and a $452 refund were not recorded;

— The highway reserve bank account balance was $255,151 greater than the book balance; and

— Nearly $1,300 was not included in a reconciliation of the health insurance trust bank account. 

Those discrepancies were not identified by Palow, the report said, who had told the auditors that he reviews the bank reconciliations monthly. The report says there’s no evidence that he has done so.

Palow also told the auditors his administration “should not be responsible for the actions of the previous administration,” which he was a part of, the report says. Palow was the deputy supervisor on the Republican-controlled town board.

The report notes that, with regard to adequate oversight of bank reconciliations and properly approving and documenting claims, “the Board could not provide us with a reasonable explanation” for why those recommendations were not implemented. 

The board members told auditors that other recommendations were not implemented because they “did not read the audit report or recommendations.”

This is despite the fact that Palow was deputy supervisor and Councilman Leo Vane had already been in office for six months by the time the first audit was published, and that Councilwoman Anita Clayton was the town clerk at the time. 

Thus, only councilmen Albert Thiem and Thomas Doolin were new to the town’s government after the audit report had been published. 

Also, the report notes, “the Supervisor and all Board members attended a training for newly elected Board members in January 2022.”

At the town board’s first meeting of 2023, on Jan. 10, Palow addressed the follow-up report by saying the board had to vote to approve a corrective action plan, which it did unanimously; he did not, however, bring up the board’s failure to take action sooner.

The plan, from what could be seen by The Enterprise as Palow quickly scrolled through it on a monitor facing the audience, essentially affirms changes the board has or will make based on the recommendations. 

Sean Lyons, who was supervisor when the original audit was released, said from the gallery, in response to another audience member’s question about the general nature of the audit, that he left soon after the report was released and so never put together a correction plan, leaving that to the new administration. 

Palow has said that he will no longer answer Enterprise questions “for any story for the Town of Berne,” a point that he reiterated at the meeting when addressing the separate issue of a building that recently collapsed on town property. 

Some Berne residents have already been highly critical of the town board’s ability to properly manage public money, and Enterprise reporting from October revealed that the town failed to pay several of its National Grid bills on time when these bills were obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. Palow has denied that the town didn’t pay its bills, but has not provided any proof. 

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  • The Carey Institute for Global Good had jettisoned much of its core programming during the pandemic years while it figured out its own future. It has now changed its name to Hilltown Commons, and partnered with three different local organizations that now call its Rensselaerville campus home. 

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