We’re waiting to see the light

Residents pay town property taxes to cover the cost of their government and to provide needed services.

One of the most basic functions of elected town board members is to oversee responsible handling of the people’s money.

Berne has failed in this regard and needs to take immediate steps to rectify the situation.

In a front-page story this week, our Hilltown reporter, Noah Zweifel, details the response to a Freedom of Information Law request he submitted, seeking information solely on electric bills from January 2021 until the time of the request made in August.

He learned that bills from National Grid for the town hall, the senior center, the library, the pump station, the highway department, Switzkill Farm facilities, the town park, the transfer station, and the wastewater treatment facility were all left unpaid at different times.

When bills were paid, frequently the town paid less than what was owed. In one case, National Grid sent disconnection notices for service.

Such neglect of meeting financial obligations for services vital to residents is unacceptable.

Equally troubling is that the town supervisor, Dennis Palow, and the town board members contacted by Zweifel did not respond to answer his questions on why the bills weren’t paid.

A democratic government is meant to serve the people, and the public deserves answers as to why the money residents have paid in taxes is not being used to meet the expenses of something as necessary as electricity.

The Enterprise has posted the response to our FOIL request on our website in the interest of transparency so residents can see for themselves the unpaid bills.

One town board member, Albert Thiem, was at least willing to talk to Zweifel and said he was unaware of any issues with the town’s electric bills and, to his credit, Thiem agreed to have The Enterprise send him copies.

But really, elected town board members in any town should be aware of their duties in reviewing bills, as set down by state law, but particularly so in Berne. In September 2021, the office of the state’s comptroller had issued an audit report that pointed up serious problems in Berne.

The audit covered the entirety of 2020, when Sean Lyons was supervisor and Palow was deputy supervisor.

“The Board did not provide adequate oversight of financial operations and exceeded its authority under New York State Town Law (Town Law) by authorizing the Supervisor to pay all expenditures without prior audit,” the comptroller’s office stated.

The audit report went on to clearly itemize the duties the board had neglected, stating that the board did not:

— Request or receive adequate monthly reports from the supervisor. For example, the board did not request or receive monthly cash reports detailing money received and disbursed, monthly bank reconciliations or cash balances for each fund;

— Ensure bank reconciliations were accurate, timely, and properly reviewed. As a result, the auditors found three significant unreconciled variances between the accounting records and the bank records ranging from about $135,800 to $31,600;

— Audit the 170 claims totaling $166,792 reviewed or audit any credit card charges totaling $8,308 before payment was made, or annually audit the records of all officials who received and disbursed funds, as required.

The comptroller’s audit made recommendations, including the supervisor preparing “adequate monthly financial reports” for the board’s review. The audit found that bank reconciliations were “inaccurate, untimely, and lacked proper review” and also that “the board did not properly audit claims.”

The comptroller’s office makes clear the role of the town board: “A board is responsible for the oversight of financial operations. Boards need complete, accurate and current financial information to effectively monitor town financial operations. Each month, the supervisor is required to submit a report to the board of all money received and disbursed.

“The report should include reconciled cash balances for each fund and comparisons of actual revenues and expenditures to amounts estimated in the annual budget (budget status reports). Reconciling bank account balances with the accounting records is essential to allow town officials to determine whether financial transactions are accurately recorded in a timely manner.” 

But instead, what the auditors found in Berne in 2021, among other problems was this: “The Board did not audit and review each claim to ensure it was a proper charge and adequately supported. The Supervisor did not provide the Board with adequate information to review claims. Further, the Board did not request support for claims because Board members were unaware what an audit of claims was.”

Apparently, the Berne Town Board members did not learn from the state audit.

The Berne board routinely and unanimously voted to allow its supervisors, Lyons in 2021 and Palow in 2022, to pay bills, Zweifel reports. The exception to unanimous votes in 2021 was Joel Willsey, the lone Democrat on the board at the time. 

Willsey, who did not seek re-election, often abstained from town votes because he said the other board members, all of whom had been elected on the Republican line, withheld information from him. “They refused to make bills and such available to me at meetings,” Willsey told The Enterprise this week.

Now that the Berne board is made up entirely of GOP-backed members, one would hope the waste of more than $15,000 spent fruitlessly investigating the board’s Democratic members could be avoided and money could be productively spent instead to further town services.

But the public has no way of knowing why the town has a cash-flow problem since its officials have been mum about the problem.

Month after month of outstanding electric bills throughout 2021 included advisories that towns could reach out to National Grid for help with COVID-related financial difficulties; the protections would have extended to the end of December 2021.

Was or is Berne suffering from COVID-related financial problems? If so, why weren’t the offered protections applied for?

That seems unlikely since the other Hilltowns, which face challenges similar to Berne’s, have ably been paying their bills. Sales-tax funds from the county kept flowing despite the pandemic; additionally, municipalities were given federal pandemic funds.

Or is the cash-flow problem caused by the roughly $3 million current town budget that, according to Lyons who drafted the plan, slashed town property taxes by 88 percent? 

The town property tax on a home valued at $250,000 — the median list price of homes for sale in the town — was to be $117.50, down from about $950 at the current tax rate of $3.79 per $1,000. So, for an average savings of about $14 per month, critics argued, taxpayers would be losing the security of decades of town savings. Questions were also raised about using federal pandemic-relief funds to lower taxes.

Berne residents need a competent government. Last year’s audit clearly delineated problems — and outlined solutions. That a town board member doesn’t know electric bills over the course of more than a year haven’t been paid indicates a systemic failure.

What would happen if the town hall went dark or the library or the senior center? What would happen without electricity at the pump station or the wastewater treatment facility or the highway garage?

But equally alarming is the darkness — the black void — of no explanation for the unpaid bills. We requested just a year-and-a-half of electric bills so we don’t know if other accounts are in arrears.

Residents deserve answers from the people they elect to serve them. They need to know what bills are not being paid — and most importantly why.

Citizens should not be left in the dark.

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