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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 30, 2009

‘Concerned Citizens’ rile Rensselaerville with claims of mismanagement, high taxes

By Zach Simeone

RENSSELAERVILLE — A group called Rensselaerville Concerned Citizens for Ethical Government, borne out of some town residents’ dissatisfaction and mistrust in their government, published a newsletter this month that has created a stir. Other residents have criticized the newsletter, calling it inaccurate and unfair.

According to the Office of the New York State Comptroller, the level of error in this town’s government is old news. In the summer of 2007, the comptroller’s office released a document called “Town of Rensselaerville: Internal Controls over Payroll and Personal Services,” which reported the findings of an audit that took place between January and December of 2006. The audit focused mostly on the town’s highway department.

The Concerned Citizens have cited this report and online benchmark data in recent newsletters in order to make the case that the cost of government is too high in Rensselaerville.

Concerned Citizens

Though the town’s Republican Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg — who is not running for re-election — has said that he is a member of the Concerned Citizens group, and former supervisor Myra Dorman, also a Republican, said that she has worked with the group in the past, other members of the group — some Democrats — have expressed a desire to remain unnamed.

This month’s newsletter contains data from www.SeeThroughNY.net, a website produced by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research that provides searchable benchmark comparisons of information, like effective property tax rates, for all municipalities across New York State.

Authors of the newsletter observed that, according to the data in the SeeThroughNY database, the effective property tax rate in Rensselaerville, .71 percent, is nearly three times the average of the other three Hilltowns, .26 percent. One piece of the explanation for this is the fact that, while Rensselaerville has the most miles of town roads, 82, it has the smallest population, 1,918. Since highway expenses make up the largest chunk of a town’s budget, not including total appropriations for the general fund, the per-capita rate is highest in Rensselaerville. The town has 43 miles of road for every 1,000 residents — by far the greatest differential in the county.

Westerlo, with the highest Hilltown population, 3,527, has 60 miles of town roads to pay for. With nearly twice as many residents, and 20 fewer miles of town roads, Westerlo has a highway budget of $895,876 for 2009, while Rensselaerville’s highway budget is $995,007.

Berne, which has the second-most miles of town roads at 79, has 2,877 residents, and a highway budget of $1,289,200 for 2009 — the highest of the four Hilltowns.

Jeffry Pine, a Democrat who is Rensselaerville’s assessor and New Scotland’s building inspector, thinks that there are certain things that the writers of the Concerned Citizens newsletter did not take into account when interpreting the online data. [See related letter to the editor].

Looking at numbers like total expenditures per capita is meaningless, Pine said, because there are many valuable properties in Rensselaerville, which pay higher taxes.

“Say you’re worth two million dollars, and I’m worth zero,” Pine said. “We’d each have one million dollars per capita. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Further, he said, half the community in Rensselaerville is owned by people who don’t live there — their primary legal residences are elsewhere, and they own second homes for vacationing in Rensselaerville. Also, one-third of the property in town— made up in part by the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve, the Rensselaerville Institute, and churches — is tax-free, said Pine.

“One thing that makes Rensselaerville more unique than other communities is that it’s not commercial based per se; it’s a lot of second homes,” Pine said. “People might own a property worth a quarter-million dollars, so, even if they aren’t permanent, they still pay a lot in taxes,” he said.

He went on, “The fuel for the fire department, ambulance, and parks comes out of the highway fund. Also, Rensselaerville has an aggressive replacement policy; we don’t bond for equipment. Westerlo, for example, bonds for highway equipment. Rensselaerville keeps putting money aside to buy it all at once, so we don’t have those smaller bond payments over the years, it’s a bigger expense all at once.”

After citing the online data, the Concerned Citizens newsletter goes on to pose two questions: “What is so different about Rensselaerville that makes the cost of running our government so expensive?” And, “Why, despite such a high tax burden for maintaining out roads, are our local town roads in such poor shape?”

This week, Nickelsberg gave the following response: “A completely inefficient superintendent of roads.”

Highway Superintendent G. Jon Chase, a Democrat, and Nickelsberg have frequently butted heads during Nickelsberg’s four years in office.

Problems solved?

Nickelsberg and Chase, who both wrote letters in 2007 responding to the recommendations in the comptroller’s report, weighed in this week on how much things have changed since the audit. The report was referenced multiple times in the Concerned Citizens’ May newsletter.

The 2007 report found that the town’s written policies and procedures were either inadequate or nonexistent, with gaps in record keeping for hourly employees.

“There are no policies and procedures that address employee responsibilities for preparing and disbursing payroll, recordkeeping requirements for hourly employees, or supervisory oversight duties,” the 2007 report said.

The town’s only policies and procedures for payroll and personal services at the time of the audit were contained in an employee manual, which had not been updated since 1996, and only provided instructions for full-time employees who are not covered under a collective bargaining agreement, and who are not elected officials. Since all town employees, besides elected officials, are hourly employees, the employee manual did not apply to any town employee.

One issue the audit found with the town’s payroll operation was inconsistent time cards. In reviewing 520 weekly time cards, the comptroller’s office found that 123 cards showed handwritten work hours, rather than hours recorded by the time clock, and some cards showed that employees had punched in, but not punched out.

This, the report said, leaves the town at risk of paying employees for time they did not work.

“The highway superintendent told us that the highway department employees often forgot to punch in or out,” the report said. “Because the time clock is located at the highway department garage where the employees begin and end each workday, it seems unlikely that forgetfulness alone can account for the large number of time cards that were not used properly. Inadequate supervision is more likely the cause.”

Also, aside from the time cards, the only records to support work performed are required daily employee reports.

“The superintendent told us that he occasionally compares the employee reports to the employee weekly time cards,” the report said, but Chase did not provide any records to confirm that these comparisons were made, and employee reports were missing for six workdays. The town paid for 982 hours of overtime, of which 393 — 40 percent — lacked an employee report, and the town paid $9,262, not including fringe benefits, for improperly documented overtime work, the report said.

Also, due to a lack of oversight by Nickelsberg, the town paid a total of $2,680, not including fringe benefits, to two part-time employees for 134 hours of work, according to the report. [For further coverage of the comptroller’s audit, go to www.altamontenterprise.com, under archives for July 19].

With regard to what steps have been taken to improve the highway department’s record-keeping system, and to avoid the possibility of over $9,000 in improperly documented overtime work, Chase told The Enterprise this week, “I don’t know anything about that.”

While the comptroller’s report focused mostly on the highway department, Nickelsberg and Chase both said this week that they think that such an audit should be performed at least once a year, in every department of town government.

The town’s governmental bodies have reported difficulties in obtaining information from each other. Joli Pizzigati, chairperson of the town’s budget committee, wrote in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week about her difficulties obtaining information from town hall [see her letter to the editor on page 7].

Nickelsberg expressed similar problems with obtaining information from the highway department.

“We try to get information, but we typically get blocked,” he said. “We’re not allowed into [Chase’s] wing of the office, so [Clerk] Kathy Hallenbeck is the one that goes in there. And, quite often, we don’t get it the first day, second day, or third day; we get it the fourth of fifth day, which makes you wonder if it’s being done faithfully.”

Rensselaerville has, however, made strides since the 2007 audit.

“Handwritten notations are no longer allowed,” Nickelsberg said of records of town employees’ work hours. “You have to have the time card meet the printing of the time clock; otherwise you don’t get paid.”

The town has updated its employee manual, its code of ethics, and its payroll policy as recommended by the comptroller’s report. New procurement and voucher policies have also been created.

At the Feb. 12 town board meeting, Councilwoman Marie Dermody — a Democrat running for supervisor — introduced the town’s newer, more detailed voucher procedure, intended to help prevent the confusion and suspicion that launched the ongoing investigation of Rensselaerville’s finances involving the Office of the Albany County Comptroller and the Office of the Albany County District Attorney. [For further coverage on the investigation, go to www.altamontenterprise.com, under archives for Jan. 22, 2009].

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