LAKEGEORGE-A week ago, it seemed that political activists in town were ready for a verbal brawl with the town leaders over municipal finances.
Last week, members of the Lake George Citizen's Group had successfully demanded a public "roundtable" session to hash out findings in a state audit report.
Monday, June 20, with the public crowding the town hall for this roundtable meeting, the stage was set for a clash between the local government leaders and their political foes, people who have gone on record that they want to oust them from office.
Monday's showdown, however, was more like a love-fest than a political smackdown.
"I thought I heard strains of 'Kumbaya' in the air," former Town Board member George McGowan said shortly after the meeting ended with everybody - the critics and the town leaders - applauding each other in unison.
While a week earlier, people had voiced protests about a lack of transparency in the budget, such angry comments were absent in the Monday meeting.
Town Supervisor Frank McCoy explained that since he had taken office, he and the board had instituted new financial software that provided titles for budget categories, rather than inscrutable code numbers. In the past, obtaining information about sums listed under codes was next to impossible, McGowan and others had said.
In response to questions about maintaining appropriate cash balances, avoiding cash flow shortages and preparing valid estimates of expenditures and revenues for budgeting, McCoy noted that the past several years had been difficult, and even many financial experts had been stymied in the wake of the financial collapse.
Town resident Whitney Russell questioned McCoy on whether the town had been maintaining adequate financial reserves.
McCoy replied that while last year the town had incurred cash flow shortages, this year he had purposefully underestimated revenues and overestimated expenses to allow for a financial cushion against hard times - and the town should have $400,000 in fund balance left over by the end of 2011.
Russell said he approved of the town maintaining a prudent amount, and not an excess sum like other taxing authorities in the region had been amassing.
"I applaud you for not setting away too much," he said.
John Carr, an owner of several local businesses, suggested that the town recruit volunteers from the public to help with independent auditing and forecasting, if finances get unduly difficult again.
"There are a lot of talented people in town that can work with the board and offer assistance," he said. The suggestion was well received by the board.
Many of those who filled the town hall were there because they were concerned about the town's curious former practice of awarding "Title Pay," which had prompted criticism in the Comptroller's report. The Title Pay stipends had been hidden under budget code designations, and paid to some town employees without public knowledge, and in many instances, without approval by the town board
The Comptroller's report, released in May, urged the town to recover a total of $234,000 in these stipends that were paid out over the past five years to 16 town employees - payments not approved by a formal board vote, nor listed annually in a formal salary ledgers released to the public.
McCoy said Monday that the board has worked to achieve full public disclosure of pay stipends, and he reiterated that they were based on employees taking on extra duties or achieving special skills. In many cases, the stipends saved taxpayers money through job consolidation, he said.
The board had recently scrutinized the former instances of title pay awards and had determined they were all earned and deserved, although they were not publicly reviewed or always approved by the board, he said.
Soon after the meeting, Kathy Muncil, a financial executive who'd been one of the board's most vocal critics on financial management, offered praise for the town board's recent actions.
"They've made significant efforts, and they should be commended for their progress," she said.
McCoy, who had expressed concerns last week about what had appeared to be a supercharged political atmosphere, appeared more relaxed after the shared applause and praise concluding the meeting.
"I'm very pleased it turned out the way it did," he said.