Comptroller 146 s audit says highway workers need to punch clock

RENSSELAERVILLE — Highway workers and part-time employees for the town used time cards sporadically last year, according to an audit by the state comptroller’s office.

Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg had requested a complete audit, but the comptroller’s office limited the audit to payroll and personal services.
The problem is that Rensselaerville is a small town and "we don’t loom large on their screen," Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week. The 26-page audit was released last week.

G. Jon Chase, Rensselaerville’s highway superintendent, told The Enterprise last night the audit "is still in litigation" and declined further comment.
"I know nothing about litigation," Nickelsberg said last night. "Where could he possibly get that"" he asked, adding that he is the town’s chief financial officer and he thinks someone would have told him.

Nickelsberg, a Republican who took office a year-and-a-half ago, has been at odds with Chase, a Democrat and long-time highway superintendent, over a variety of issues, including the purchase of highway materials, the town’s procurement policy, the way roads are maintained, and the dismissal of Chase’s wife, Joyce Chase, who had worked in the past as a clerk for the department.

Chase has not attended a regular town board meeting since January.
In his June 18 response to preliminary findings by the comptroller’s office, Nickelsberg asks for a complete audit of the town and is "particularly concerned regarding procurement policies." The town’s procurement policy requires officials to obtain three bids for all purchases over $200. The nearby town of Berne, which has a comparable road system, authorizes its highway superintendent, Ray Storm, to make purchases of up to $2,500 without the town board’s prior approval.

Audit findings

Highway employees had not been routinely using the time clock located in the highway garage to record their beginning and ending work times, according to the comptroller’s report. Of 520 highway employees’ time cards examined by auditors, 123 had been hand-written instead of being recorded by a time clock. All 123 time cards had supervisory approval.
"Employee Reports, documenting overtime worked and the work performed were not properly completed and were missing for six workdays during June 2006," auditors said.
The town, in turn, paid its highway employees $9,262 for 393 hours "without adequate documentation."

Highway workers and part-time employees are going to use a time clock, and those who do not, won’t be paid, Nickelsberg said last week.

Town officials could not provide auditors with time records to document $2,680 paid to two part-time employees, according to auditors.

Last year, Bob Bolte and K.B. Cooke, Rensselaerville residents who work on town projects and frequently volunteer, completed roof, insulation, and siding improvements at Town Hall.
Throughout the project, Nickelsberg said, he could see Cooke and Bolte were working. Hours were adding up, at times he ate lunch with them, and he was "comfortable" signing their checks, Nickelsberg said.
Cooke and Bolte are expected to work on another town project this year — constructing a fire- and water-proof building to house all town records. Nickelsberg estimated the project will cost $20,000. He was uncertain whether others would help with the project. "They both still work, and that’s a big project," Nickelsberg said.
In regards to documenting work, the comptroller’s office, Nickelsberg said, wants "uniform and consistent payroll procedures."
"‘What if the work had been in Potter Hollow park"’ is the comptroller’s concern," he said. "If there’s a better way to get the best business practice, we’ll do it."

Chase’s response
Chase wrote to auditors that highway employees "often forgot to punch in or out."
"It seems unlikely that forgetfulness alone can account for the large number of time cards that were not used properly," auditors replied.

As of January 2007, the town employed 10 full-time highway workers. All are members of Local 106 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.
In response to the comptroller’s report, Chase, who did not attend an exit meeting with the auditors on May 23, cited issues he had wanted to discuss. On May 23, Chase wrote in his report, Nickelsberg and auditors met "with the door shut" for "over an hour." In his report, Chase says, an auditor "was very rude," "treated me like a criminal," and "treated me like I was not important."
The comptroller’s office disagrees with Chase’s assertions about its staff’s behavior on May 23, writing its staff "conducted themselves in a professional manner."

Nickelsberg, Republican Councilman Robert Lansing, bookkeeper Andrea Cornwell, and two auditors attended the May 23 exit meeting, Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week.
Under union contracts, highway workers are paid a minimum of three hours of overtime when they are called out "for instances such as weather (snow, sleet, rain), downed trees, and other emergency situations," Chase wrote. Removing a fallen tree that is blocking a road probably doesn’t take three hours, but the workers are paid three hours for the work, he wrote. This is why times had been hand-written on highway workers’ time cards, Chase wrote.
"The highway department should have a procedure to formally document the pre-approval of overtime," auditors responded. "This pre-approval should be performed by the superintendent or his authorized designee and retained on file as proof that overtime was authorized."

Updates urged

In the comptroller’s report, auditors recommend the town’s ethics policies and employee manuals be updated.

The employee manual, which provides instructions for full-time workers, was last updated in December of 1996. Rensselaerville’s code of ethics was last updated in 1970.

The employee manual, Nickelsberg told The Enterprise, is being finalized by the town’s attorney at the Tabner, Ryan, and Keniry law firm in Albany.
"We had that done about a year ago," Nickelsberg told The Enterprise, adding that additions and deletions have been made to the manual.

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