Sloppy Government A Statewide Issue

It’s bad enough New York state has so much government.

What makes the problem even worse is that some of that government just isn’t very good.

The area has seen several audits by the state Comptroller’s Office recently – Hanover, Forestville, Dayton, Otto and Chautauqua, to name a few – that showed a variety of flaws in how those governments handle the public’s business. Whatever the cause, the end result has been sloppy government and wasted taxpayer dollars.

In Hanover, the comptroller’s office said the town supervisor had an account clerk and deputy town clerk performing the supervisor’s duties. Adequate financial reports weren’t given to Town Board members and annual audits of the supervisor’s records and audits hadn’t taken place. Basically, it was pretty hard to find mistakes because there was so little oversight.

Just last week, the comptroller released an audit of the town of Chautauqua that showed the town did not develop reasonable budget estimates for the general fund and did not properly monitor and control actual activity against those estimates. The board over-estimated revenues for mortgage tax by a total of $154,157 and the rental of real property by $77,580 over the last three years, included $50,000 in 2012 for the sale of property that was not sold and failed to recognize a $62,649 debt payment wasn’t even included in the 2012 budget. The board also reduced the tax levy in 2011 by 5 percent and appropriated $6,495 of nonexistent fund balance in the 2012 budget.

That these things happen occasionally is understandable. What should anger taxpayers is that it is a statewide problem among smaller government units typically with only a few thousand residents. Audit after audit throughout the state finds similar problems in places like Newfield, Amsterdam, Argyle, Bangor, Benson, Black Brook, Coldspring, Davenport, Dresden, Fishkill, White Creek, Summerhill, Shelby, Rensselaerville, Pittstown, Otto, Otselic, Mohawk, Lindley, Unadilla and Herrings. The Pittstown audit is particularly noteworthy because the town’s bookkeeping was in such disarray auditors couldn’t determine if the town was in good or bad financial shape.

Town and village officials don’t try to do a bad job. They certainly don’t run for election wanting to leave their town in worse shape than they found it. They are good people who stepped up to serve, have busy lives outside of town government and who, sometimes, are ill-equipped to handle the complexity of governing in New York state. Frankly, they aren’t accountants or lawyers even though they are expected to be by taxpayers and by the state.

Towns and villages could help themselves by making sure they have someone qualified to handle such bookwork on their staff. Board members should demand that good bookwork and regular financial reports are the norm, not the exception. And, each town should have someone they can consult to make sure there aren’t issues. Some boards have such a person – but the sheer volume of state audits dealing with sloppy bookkeeping and inadequate reporting shows many do not.

The best solution, though, is fewer layers of government. After all, this spate of comptroller’s offices doesn’t show malfeasance or fraud. They show good people who sometimes are in over their head. This trend of too many positions for too few qualified people is just the latest convincing argument in favor of merging and consolidating layers of government.

Such a paradigm shift is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, but it should. After all, it’s the public’s hard-earned tax dollars we’re wasting.