GOP wants more town oversight on finances in Westerlo

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Lisa DeGroff, earlier this year, reads aloud her suggestion that the town hall host an open house. DeGroff, who is the town’s GOP chairwoman, suggested at this month’s meeting that the town board issue a monthly financial report; a similar suggestion was made Councilman Richard Filkins, also a Republican.

WESTERLO — The two Republicans on Westerlo’s town board are backing a series of resolutions that would regulate the goings-on at Town Hall.

At Westerlo’s Dec. 4 town board meeting, Councilman Richard Filkins introduced a resolution that would require time clocks be installed in the town hall for the employees to use, as well as a motion that monthly reports be required from town departments.

He had a total of six resolutions that would establish more oversight of town finances, of which he read two at the meeting, supported by Republican Councilwoman Amie Burnside.

The other three board members are Democrats, including long-time Supervisor Richard Rapp who has lost his temper at recent meetings.

The recommendations came on the heels of a town budget for next year that was drafted by Rapp without input from the town board or public, and initially had an error that put the spending plan more than $150,000 over the state-set tax levy limit. Nor did the town meet the requirement in state law that a public hearing be held on the preliminary budget by Nov. 8.

At last week’s meeting, between Filkins’s explanation of the fifth and sixth resolution on recommended changes to financial procedures, another argument erupted.

“I’m not stealing it, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Rapp interrupted; he had made similar comments at a meeting last month.

“Dick, I’m tired of hearing you say you’re not stealing money,” replied Lisa DeGroff, the town’s GOP chairwoman.

“You’re goddamn right I am [not], I’m not a crook — ,” said Rapp.

“Because you know what, not once — ,” said DeGroff.

“I am a lot of things, my friend, but I’m no goddamn crook!” said Rapp.

“You know what — ,” said DeGroff.

“Are you hearing me?” shouted Rapp.

“No! I’m not done speaking, no one has accused you of stealing, and every time I’ve sent an email with a question, I’ve prefaced it by saying I’m not accusing you of stealing,” said DeGroff.

“I’m not a goddamn crook, bullshit, bullshit,” muttered Rapp.

“Never said it, never said it,” repeated DeGroff.

Rapp then asked to adjourn the meeting, but instead Filkins then asked to read the series of proposed resolutions.

The two raised their voices at each other, and Rapp stood up, but eventually sat back down as the atmosphere cooled off.

Councilman Joseph Boone suggested that the board discuss the resolutions at the Dec. 18 workshop, to which the board agreed.

Burnside told The Enterprise on Friday that the resolutions were presented as such because it was hoped that the items would be “taken seriously” by the rest of the board if they were more formal than a suggestion.

She said she supports all six resolutions, and that she had spoken with Filkins about the ideas proposed in the resolutions he wrote, particularly after the town’s 2019 budget was passed. Burnside said that many of their concerns about the budget could be answered with these resolutions. The time clock, she said, would allow the board to approve raises in the budget with more confidence knowing the hours an employee worked.

Burnside added that she would also like to see the board have a budget to review by the end of August.

“Even if it’s a rough draft,” she said.

Six resolutions

The first resolution requires that a time clock be installed in the town hall and that hourly employees punch in and out for their shifts. Filkins said at the meeting that this measure would protect the town from being liable for something like a car accident that could happen while an employee is off the clock, but the town would have no way to prove it.

He also said it would help the town decide on merit raises. Burnside added employees would be paid more who are now working undocumented extra hours.

The measure was applauded, literally, by DeGroff and resident Anita Marone in the gallery.

Town justice Robert Carl later said the first motion will cost the town more money and noted that town employees often do town errands on their way home from the town hall like driving to the bank. DeGroff said that this could be ameliorated by using computer software so that shift hours can be remotely noted, which Boone described as “pie in the sky” technology.

“This is Westerlo … ,” he said. “It’s new to the town of Westerlo.”

Filkins also went over a second resolution requires that a number of town departments make monthly reports at the regular town board meetings. Reports would be required from the assessor, the Broadband Research Committee, the town clerk, the code enforcement officer, the dog warden, the grant writer, the highway department, the historian, the justice court, the library, the museum, the planning board, the transfer station, the building department, and the zoning board.

Judge Carl noted that the town court, by state law, is not required to do a monthly report, only an annual one.

The third resolution addressed revising and updating the employee handbook.

The fourth resolution would have the town board receive a monthly budget compared to an actual accounting report with an up-to-date monthly balance. Board members would have it by the Friday before each town board meeting so they could review it. The board members would then approve expenditures at their monthly meetings. The resolution also asks that at least two town employees be trained in accounting, in particular using the software QuickBooks.

The fifth resolution would establish a Budget Advisory Committee to meet monthly and review the town’s budget and “determine what, if any, revisions to current budget practices would improve budget structure, accounting, reporting, oversight, timeliness, and transparency.” The committee would act as an advisory body. Filkins had suggested the town form such a committee shortly after being appointed to the board in January.

At the meeting, before Filkins spoke on his proposed resolutions, DeGroff also asked the board about reviewing a monthly financial report of the budgeted expenses compared to the actual expenses at the meetings. Councilman Anthony Sherman replied that the supervisor’s report already includes an account of the budget as opposed to the actual general fund. DeGroff said she had asked for the information but said “the numbers aren’t there.”

The sixth resolution would establish a “detailed employee job description approved by the Supervisor and Town Board,” for hourly town hall workers. The resolution is similar to the other proposed resolution to have a time clock, because it states that it would give better detail on how many hours an employee should be working, with permanent scheduled hours assigned and job performance reviews on Sept. 1 that would then be reflected in the upcoming budget.

Agenda items

From the gallery, John Sefcik, who serves on the town’s zoning board, asked that in 2019 the town also begin providing a detailed agenda before town board meetings as it had previously.

Currently, the agenda is the same every month, listing general topics, such as “payment of monthly bills,” “old business,” “new business,” and “close meeting” without any specifics.

DeGroff agreed with Sefcik, saying that a detailed agenda could encourage members of the public to attend if they see an issue of interest.

“They could be missing out on something that very well concerns them,” she said.

Town Clerk Kathleen Spinatto said that often the board members have not agreed on the agenda items in time for it to be printed or put online. She added that, if the board could determine the agenda items a week ahead, it may be possible.

William Bichteman, a former town board member who currently heads the water board, interjected from the gallery that sometimes these agenda items change.

Marone asked from the gallery if the board members have a detailed agenda of their own. Burnside said that they had notes written on the agenda. Spinnato replied that she does type up the agenda for the board, which Burnside said she wasn’t aware of.

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