THURMAN - New revelations suggest a nearly 30 percent hike in 2009 town taxes imposed by the town board in November may have been unnecessary, and that taxpayers could have had a dramatic reduction instead.
This month, the office of the state comptroller discovered that the town of Thurman has a stash of more than $600,000 that town officials say they didn't know existed at the time of the budget's adoption.
Located in the town's general fund, the $600,000 is roughly equal to Thurman's entire annual operating budget.
Town officials are blaming inept bookkeeping for the lack of knowledge of the large sum.
"This town has a history of keeping sloppy books," said Councilwoman Ruth Keller. "We had had horrible bookkeeping practices - I still have a lot of questions regarding the town's funds."
Due to the departure of former Thurman Supervisor John Haskell, convicted in November of defrauding the government, the state has undertaken an audit of Thurman's finances and budgetary practices for fiscal years 2007 and 2008, town officials said this week. The report of the state's findings has not yet been released.
"Over the last several years the town has had between a 90 and 114 percent fund balance," newly appointed Thurman Supervisor Lawrence 'Red' Pitkin said Wednesday. "The typical town has somewhere around a 25 percent fund balance relative to its overall budget."
After Haskell's departure, the temporary duties of supervisor fell to his deputy, Leon Galusha, who was under a pending legal deadline to file the budget.
The confusion and political fallout which followed Haskell's departure, town officials said this week, led to the adoption of a budget which featured the highest town tax hike in Warren County.
These revelations caused town residents to question how this money was hidden away in town coffers.
"All I can tell you is that we were lied to back then," Pitkin said.
But Haskell said Monday that the budgetary confusion and misinformation occurred after he left office.
"Red Pitkin wasn't appointed until after the budget was passed, and he never came to a board meeting before then, so I don't know who may have lied to him," Haskell said.
Pitkin stressed that the current state review is not a forensic audit, but some members of the town board and citizenry are now calling for one to be undertaken.
"When I started asking these questions to the previous board I was always told the money didn't exist," Councilwoman Ruth Keller said. "I started to look into things and when the issue came up at town meetings I was called a trouble-maker and harassed - I for one would like to see a forensic audit."
Keller was the whistleblower who played a key role in Haskell's fall.
Haskell said Monday that all town board members should have known the money existed, because each month he supplied them with account statements of the town checking accounts, the town's certificates of deposit, and the town's money market funds.
"Every month, I gave the town board members a list of every dime belonging to the town," he said. "No money was ever hidden."
√Despite Keller's call for a forensic audit, Pitkin said this week he was not sure that it is applicable in this case.
"From my understanding, a forensic audit is typically done when money is missing," Pitkin said. "I do think a forensic audit is one way to address the issue, but not the only way- my approach is lets look forward and move on."
In response to state audit recommendations, the town board has hired Susan Shepler as an account clerk, installed employee punch-clocks at the town highway garage and is in the process of creating a purchasing policy, including installation of purchase order software.
"We need to firm up our buying system," Pitkin said. "Our problem appears to be that people weren't taking money, they were hoarding it."
The final audit report is several months from completion, but at present the state has not recommended a forensic audit, Pitkin said.
"We will certainly look into it," Pitkin said. "Nobody likes the current situation - we all agree it is not good and that is why we are taking steps to create new policies."
Haskell said Monday he was also alarmed.
He said the current year's whopping tax increase was an unnecessary burden on town taxpayers. In preparing for a tentative budget last Fall, he had anticipated that in 2009 the town taxpayers would have no tax increase at all, he said.