ELIZABETHTOWN - The town of Elizabethtown must do a better job keeping track of its funds and fuel, a recent audit has determined.
The office of New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released their report last week of an audit that noted significant shortfalls in the way the town maintains records of gasoline pumped from bulk storage tanks at the town highway garage and Cobble Hill Golf Course.
The audit, which scrutinized records from January 2008 through April 2009, also found failure on the part of supervisor Noel Merrihew and his bookkeeper to keep accurate financial records and submit them to the town board for annual review.
Cash account balance tests for December 2008 and March 2009 found "discrepancies between the bank statement and general ledger balances that could not be explained, ranging from approximately $260 to $140,260,"
Additionally, four out of seven town expenditure accounts were found to be over-expended during the year by a total of $47,853. Instead of transferring money from accounts with a surplus, "town officials inappropriately transferred expenditures from over-expended accounts to accounts with appropriations remaining in order to keep expenditures in individual accounts under the budgeted figures," the report stated.
"The improper transfer of expenditures makes it difficult for town officials to prepare their budget and makes the use of the budget almost pointless," it added.
Auditors recommended that Merrihew and his bookkeeper attend training to learn how to properly use the town's financial management software and emphasized for accurate records to be submitted regularly to the town board for review.
The audit also examined records pertaining to the usage of gasoline and diesel fuel purchased by the town.
Town fuel usage has been a point of contention in the past as some Elizabethtown residents have criticized Merrihew and other town officials for using tanks at the Cobble Hill Golf Course to fuel vehicles used elsewhere than the golf course.
The tanks have traditionally been used to fuel maintenance vehicles at the golf course, but also vehicles that are used for garbage pick-up, park maintenance, and town logging operations in the 800-acre resource management area around the Cobble Hill trail system. The tanks are operated by hand-crank pumps, the meters for which do not accurately measure the gasoline during pumping.
Though golf course fuel logs examined by auditors showed which vehicles were filled and the dates, they did not note the amount of fuel that was pumped from the tank or the reason for its usage.
"Additionally, prior to 2009, the logs did not separate the fuel used for garbage services and logging from the fuel used by the golf course," the report said, "thereby making it appear that fuel was used at the golf course during times it was not open."
Similar issues were found with the logs for fuel tanks at the town highway garage. Auditors noted that the town had an informal agreement that allowed the Elizabethtown Fire District and Elizabethtown-Lewis Ambulance Squad to use fuel from those tanks.
"While the superintendent maintained vehicle usage logs for highway vehicles and equipment, he did not track the fuel used by the fire district or the ambulance squad," nor did the town bill the fire or ambulance squad for their usage of fuel, the report stated.
In both cases, auditors urged the town to keep more accurate records of fuel usage and inventory.
"The absence of a detailed fuel inventory and usage records makes it impossible to determine whether all fuel purchased was used for legitimate town purposes," the report reads. "The failure to maintain adequate usage logs... places the town at a significant risk for inappropriate use or theft of the town's fuel supplies."
In response to the report, Merrihew stated that the town has already taken steps to remedy the issues raised in the audit and plans to act on all the recommendations of the Comptroller's office.
Both Merrihew and his personal clerk have completed the recommended training, he said, and town financial records were submitted to the town board at their Jan. 11 meeting after thorough scrutiny from an outside bookkeeper.
Merrihew said the town will continue to maintain its fuel records and periodic checks will be performed by the town board to ensure the records are accurate. Also, he said the town will revisit its relationship with both the fire district and emergency squad in regards to fuel usage.
He went on to offer reassurance to Elizabethtown taxpayers "that our books and their finances are in balance and accounted for."
"All bank accounts have been reviewed and verified by the outside bookkeeper," stated Merrihew. "Reconciliation of bank to book representation are in balance and all funds are accounted for."
"With the implementation of the comptroller's recommendations, I am confident that the town will continue in its solid financial position," he added.
Merrihew, who has been attending the New York State Association of Counties conference in Albany this week, has yet to be reached for further comment.