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Auditing official competence

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There are some topics virtually guaranteed to glaze over the eyes of virtually any newspaper reader. One is the combination of the words "sewer" or "water" and "district. Another contains the phrase "municipal audit." The latter is especially deadly because, almost all the time, the story is full of such eye-grabbers as "a lack of internal controls" and "a failure to deposit funds within the statutory 72-hour limits." These are words only a CPA could truly love.

Yet, of all the stories that we cover from the scores of towns and villages across the north country, stories about municipal audits are among the more important because they give residents of these municipalities a window into just how serious their elected officials are about their jobs. In Chaumont last week, the village was criticized for doing or not doing a series of things that would help insure no municipal official could steal public funds. Taken individually, these things may seem minor. And, indeed, I have heard public officials praise themselves for having "good audits" when the auditor couldn't find any stolen money.

In Chaumont, however, what the auditors found was this: it's a damned good thing that the village has an honest clerk/treasurer, because a dishonest person in that position could have pretty much robbed the village blind. Why? Because the village Board of Trustees wasn't watching the till. In fact, the mayor told the Times that the village has not had an independent audit in a decade at least – and perhaps a good deal longer.

As in most municipalities criticized for inadequate internal controls, Chaumont handed the check book and the bank books to the clerk/treasurer and said "Here, handle it." They did not receive comprehensive monthly or annual reports, they did not receive updates on how the village's spending compared to its budget as the year progressed and they did not see cancelled checks or even, at any regular interval, the towns banking statements.

In Chaumont, no money was missing. The temptation may be to say "No harm, no foul." That would be a bad decision. Ask the town of Lewis, for example, where they have filed multiple civil suits to try to get back something in excess of $250,000 brazenly embezzled by their bookkeeper, a local girl named Melissa Wagner-Dano. The Town Council snoozed for years while she plundered municipal accounts, coming way too late to the realization that the town's books simply didn't balance. While Wagner-Dano was raping the town's bank accounts, she was also plundering the accounts of the Oneida Lewis Milk Producers' Cooperative and the Boonville Farm Cooperative. Her overall take came to within sniffing distance of $1 million. That is a one with six zeros. It is a lot of money anywhere; in Lewis County, it is a king's ransom.

From the town of Lewis, Wagner-Dano stole a new municipal building. She depleted many town reserve funds, including ones intended to pay for a new town hall, cover unemployment claims and keep taxes down, Lewis Supervisor Dawn M. Zagurski said at her sentencing. Lewis taxpayers are going to feel the effects of this for years if efforts to obtain restitution are less than successful. And where is someone who is in federal prison going to make enough money to pay back $250,000?

In Watertown, the state audit of the town found something entirely different but no less disturbing. There, town officials knowingly misappropriated funds for an improper town expenditure, then apparently failed to consider the cost of all alternatives to supporting a town ambulance squad that may cost the town many times what a contract with Guilfoyle Ambulance would cost.

And, in the vein of keeping everyone, including the council, in the dark, town Supervisor Joel Bartlett, who fancies himself as the town's CEO and chief financial officer rather than an elected member of the Town Council, has decided to keep some town financial records in the hands of a private financial firm, and out of the view of the public and other elected officials. If ever there was potential for the loss of taxpayer money – through theft or through improper action by municipal officials – it exists in situations like this.

So the next time you see your town or village's name and the words "inadequate internal controls", or even "state audit", pay attention. Find out what's going on. If it's serious enough for the state comptroller to take issue with, it's important enough for you to speak out about as well. You're paying a lot of tax money to these municipalities, and you should view it as another one of your own investments. Don't let someone else squander it for you.

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