Berne under audit by state comptroller's office

Enterprise file photo — Noah Zweifel

Berne Supervisor Sean Lyons looks over the town’s adopted 2020 budget.

BERNE — The town of Berne is being audited by the Office of the New York State Comptroller after Councilman Joel Willsey, a Democrat, submitted complaints to a comptroller official about the formulation of the town’s 2020 budget by the Republican supervisor, Sean Lyons. 

Deputy Press Secretary Tania Lopez of the Comptroller’s office confirmed for The Enterprise this week that an audit was underway but declined to reveal its scope and timeline. 

Lyons told The Enterprise that he was informed about the audit “three, four weeks ago” by the comptroller’s office but has not received more detailed information from the office since. 

Willsey told The Enterprise that he triggered the audit by sending a series of emails and documents to the comptroller’s office that detailed various flaws with the budget creation process, including:

— Failure by Lyons to allow the board to vote to approve a preliminary budget as required by law; 

— Modification of the tentative budget without town board review just before it was deemed preliminary, and;

— Statutory failings by Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger.

Bashwinger is also the chairman of the Berne Republican Committee. 

Willsey also alleges in his emails to the comptroller official that the unapproved preliminary budget allowed the GOP to boast of a 9-percent property tax reduction shortly before last November’s town elections. The adopted 2020 budget reduced property taxes by 3.5 percent.

 

Rescheduled meeting 

Emails obtained by The Enterprise show that on Oct. 25, then-councilwomen Dawn Jordan and Karen Schimmer, both Democrats, requested that a budget hearing scheduled for Oct. 23 be rescheduled before the tentative budget deadline of Oct. 30 because each of the board’s three Democrats — Willsey, Jordan, and Schimmer — were unexpectedly prevented from attending the Oct. 23 hearing. 

According to the emails, Jordan was stranded out-of-state due to an airplane malfunction, Schimmer had a medical issue, and Willsey had a family issue. 

The Democrats emailed then-town attorney William Conboy III on Oct. 28 seeking guidance, explaining that Lyons had not yet responded and they were worried that the concerns they had about the budget would not be able to be addressed.

Conboy replied that Lyons was obligated by law to reschedule a meeting once two town board members made that request, but that Lyons had 10 days to do so. Conboy also explained that a preliminary budget can be modified before it becomes final. 

However, state law requires that a preliminary budget be approved by the town board before it is presented to the public; but, because the meeting was not rescheduled before Oct. 30, no vote to approve the preliminary budget was conducted. 

On Oct. 31, the Facebook page “The Happenings in the town of Berne NY” posted the town’s preliminary budget and highlighted the 9-percent property tax decrease. The Berne Happenings page, moderated at least in part by Berne resident William Keal, frequently endorses Bashwinger and the GOP-backed Berne councilmembers.

Last November, GOP-backed town board candidates Mathew Harris and Bonnie Conklin beat out their Democratic competitors and took office on Jan. 1, 2020, securing a GOP-backed majority in Berne for the first time in decades. Republicans Lyons and Councilman Dennis Palow remain on the board; Schimmer and Jordan did not seek re-election.

In his email to the comptroller official, shared with The Enterprise, Willsey writes that the adoption of a preliminary budget without board approval was especially inappropriate given Lyons’s absence from a budget hearing that Willsey says prevented the board Democrats from raising issues and getting clarification.

Jordan wrote in a letter to the Enterprise editor in February this year that she did not believe the preliminary budget was valid. 

“It ‘appears’ that resulted in no approved preliminary budget as required by law,” Jordan wrote. “It also ‘appears’ that the supervisor reworked his seriously flawed tentative budget without board knowledge, oversight, or a vote to approve a ‘preliminary budget’ and he presented his altered tentative budget as the ‘preliminary budget.’ It ‘appears’ to me that this was deceit or deception. Perhaps a forgery.”

Lyons responded to Jordan’s claims in an email to The Enterprise, “The board [Democrats] had one month to review, comment and attend two review meetings to approve changes to the tentative budget and did not ask one question or attend any of the two workshops, therefore with no approved changes the tentative budget became the Preliminary on October 30.”

No minutes are posted online for any budget hearing between Sept. 30, when the tentative budget was presented, and Nov. 1, after the preliminary budget had been presented. Meetings had been scheduled for Oct. 16 and Oct. 23. 

The Enterprise requested any minutes that may exist of an October budget hearing from Town Clerk Anita Clayton, who is Berne’s Freedom of Information Law officer, but did not immediately receive a response.

 

Bashwinger

Willsey’s complaint against Bashwinger is backed up by municipal consultant Michael Richardson, whom the town board had hired to help put together what he called a “reality-based” 2020 budget. Richardson told The Enterprise that he received virtually no cooperation from Lyons or Bashwinger.

For the type of budget that Richardson wanted to put together, different departments needed to present information about their actual costs, which would allow a budget estimate that’s more accurate than what Richardson called “incremental budgeting,” or carrying over figures from the preceding year’s budget and adjusting them as needed. 

But Bashwinger never submitted information about the highway department, which accounts for nearly half of the town’s expenses in the 2020 budget. 

“[Bashwinger] didn’t even do that,” Richardson said. “He didn’t complete his statutory requirements.”

Bashwinger told The Enterprise in December that Richardson never asked for cost estimates. Richardson said that the information was requested from Baswhinger in person.

Richardson, 67, said it was the only time he’s experienced resistance from a town that’s contracted his services in the many years he’s been a municipal consultant.

“There’s no political agenda here,” Richardson said of his budget consultation. “The only agenda is to get the numbers right.”

dennissullivan
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Joined: 01/01/2015 - 10:51
Excellent reporting.

Shows how important The Enterprise is for clarifying to the community of Berne issues that affect the lives of all in the Town.

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