Concerns Over Town Finances Again Prompt Audit Requests
FREWSBURG — Concerns over the accuracy and timeliness of financial records for the town of Carroll have prompted two requests for audits by the state Comptroller’s Office.
The letters to Thomas DiNapoli, sent a week apart from state Assemblyman Andy Goodell and Carroll Town Supervisor Laura Smith, highlight what has become growing tension among town officials.
At the heart of the matter, Goodell said, is the “considerable controversy over the accuracy and completeness of the financial records of the town of Carroll” dating back to 2016-17. Goodell pointed out that the 2016 Annual Financial Report Update Document for the town was not submitted until July 1 of this year.
“In addition to being significantly late,” the assemblyman said, “the 2016 annual update document shows an unexplained $22,425 adjustment in the general fund balance and a restated negative fund balance of $11,719 in the highway budget.”
Smith and Town Clerk Tenneil Stelmack both lost their respective Republican primaries for reelection, with Russell Payne getting the nod for supervisor and Susan Rowley for town clerk.
Goodell said an “expedited audit” is necessary while Smith and Stelmack are still in office.
“To be clear, I am not accusing any current or former town officials of any illegal, unethical or fraudulent activity,” Goodell said in his letter. “Rather, I am focused solely on helping the town of Carroll resolve these questions and move forward in a positive manner. Indeed, as a courtesy to Ms. Smith and the current town clerk, and to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of an audit by the state Comptroller’s Office, it is important that an audit be initiated while they are still in office so that they have the opportunity to answer questions, provide relevant records and documents and assist with the audit.”
Smith, who will appear on the ballot for supervisor on the Independence and Conservative party lines in November’s General Election, said Goodell’s request for an audit is based on politics.
In her own letter, dated July 24 and sent to The Post-Journal along with Goodell’s, Smith told DiNapoli she was “fully in favor” of the state Comptroller’s Office initiating a review, and pointed out that she made a motion at the July 10 Town Board meeting to have an audit performed by an outside firm.
“As I am disappointed in the fact that Mr. Goodell’s letter seems to be politically motivated. I am certainly in favor of obtaining answers for the town of Carroll residents,” said Smith, who has been supervisor since January 2018 after serving as town clerk for about a dozen years.
Smith noted that she wasn’t supervisor during the years in which the annual reports were neglected. She said she has been working with the town’s accounting firm to get them filed.
“I know all of this is going on because there’s an election and they’re trying to make me look bad,” Smith said of Goodell and certain town council members.
Goodell insists his audit request was a courtesy to the incumbents, and pointed out that he was asked by “concerned constituents” to contact DiNapoli’s office. “Every municipality is audited on a rotating basis,” Goodell said. “It’s not a question of if they will be audited, but when.”
QUESTIONS OVER FINANCES
Concerns over the town’s books have been broached in the past. In November 2017, then-Supervisor Jack Jones Jr. requested a state audit of the town’s swim program after it was suspected that not all of the money collected had been deposited in the bank. The town hired a certified public accountant to perform an in-house review of the town’s finances for the 2015 and 2016 calendar years.
“We did a basic audit ourselves and found that things were not matching up,” Jones told The Post-Journal. “We hired a CPA, and we found some peculiarities that we weren’t happy about.”
The swim program costs the town about $16,000 a year for an administrator, swim instructor and lifeguards. Due to a lack of receipts, the local auditor told the Town Board it was difficult to determine if the money collected was handed over to the town clerk to be deposited.
No audit was ever performed.
Smith believes no money was ever taken from the swim program. Instead, she attributed the discrepancy to “sloppy bookkeeping” and miscommunication between the director of the program and town officials about how much money might have been collected to what was received.
“I don’t think anything illegal was going on,” said Smith, who has been critical of the 2017 in-house audit and its findings.
In a statement read aloud during the Town Board’s July meeting, Smith said the town’s current accounting firm recently completed the 2016 Annual Update Document, and that work was underway to complete the 2017 and 2018 documents. She also quoted the accountant, who told her regarding past financial reports, “I do have concerns about how the accounting was performed. That does not mean that there is fraud. The way the QuickBooks files are incomplete and include no descriptions of transactions is concerning. AUDs were not completed and not completed timely.”
SEEKING COMMON GROUND
Town councilwoman Patty Ekstrom said an audit by the Comptroller’s Office was completed in 2013 that focused on the supervisor and Town Court. She said she has been calling for a similar review of town clerk records “for years” to complete the process.
“I am disappointed in the way things are being handled. There is a lack of transparency in our government,” Ekstrom said. “This has been an issue — we need someone to come in, either an outside firm or the state Comptroller’s Office. … I will continue to reach out (for an audit). We are really hoping for one by the end of the year.”
Smith said she supports a review, but believes the audit request is politically motivated. “We have to try and find some answers,” she said of ongoing reviews. “I believe this is 100% political.”
The supervisor said she can’t stop other members of the board, or even the community, from “spreading rumors” about her time in town government, but she is determined to “set the record straight.” She also hopes the Town Board can find common ground for the community’s sake.
“I think we as a board were all elected for a reason,” Smith said. “We need to find the money to do some sort of audit so we can get some answers. It’s hard to be on a board and have the public see this.”
Asked if she has reconsidered running for reelection, Smith said, “I’ve considered it, but that’s just not how I roll.”