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Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) and his wife Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset). Photo by Kyle Barr

Less than a month ago, Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) was still debating whether he would run this year for Suffolk County executive. 

On Feb. 11, Kennedy stood shoulder to shoulder with other top Republican leaders to announce his running for the top county office.

“None of us forgets who we work for, and that’s the taxpayer,” Kennedy said. “We will stop the hemorrhaging, stop the bleeding. We will cut up the credit cards, start to pay our debts and bring life back to Suffolk County.”

John Kennedy Jr. (R) points to the county’s loss in bond rating. Photo by Kyle Barr

Kennedy, along with other county Republicans, has been consistent in attacking county Executive Steve Bellone (R) for the current state of the county’s finances, pointing to a drop in bond rating from A3 to Baa1 on the Moody Rating Scale since 2015. In a Jan. 31 article by TBR News Media, Eric Naughton, Suffolk’s budget director, said while the county’s bond rating has dropped, Kennedy was “overstating” the impact. He went on to say Moody’s, which gives the bond grades to municipalities, was only looking at the past and not the future. 

Kennedy has called for a 90-day top to bottom look at the county’s offices to see which ones can be pruned, which employees can be shuffled around and what belts can be tightened. He also called for an end to excessive spending, while cutting county fees and reducing the size of the county’s red light camera program. He said he was especially concerned with delays in payment to public employees and to contractors.

“We don’t pay our daycare providers on time, we don’t pay anybody on time,” the comptroller said. “We make them all our bank.”

John Jay LaValle, the Suffolk County Republican committee chairman, said during a phone interview the party is throwing its weight behind the current county comptroller. So far two other Republicans have announced their candidacy, including Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). LaValle said former police officer Larry Zacarese, who previously ran for Suffolk County sheriff in 2017, was also considering running on the Republican ticket. 

The Republican committee chairman said he would ask the current candidates to sit down and work out their differences, saying a primary could do damage to the party’s chance to win.

“If we do a primary, we give the executive seat to Bellone,” LaValle said.

Kennedy announced his plan to run for office at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, surrounded by U.S. Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Peter King (R-Seaford), along with many other elected Republicans. King ran again for his position alongside Kennedy in the 2018 electoral season.

“If we do a primary, we give the executive seat to Bellone.”

— John Jay Lavalle

“He ran us all into the ground — I’ve never seen a harder working campaigner,” King said.

Trotta said during a phone interview he would be willing to sit down with Kennedy and the Republican leadership, potentially to drop his candidacy if he agrees with what he hears.

“I welcome John Kennedy to the race, this is what democracy is all about, and no one knows more than John about what a financial mess the Bellone administration has created,” Trotta said.

Kennedy has worked in public office for years, working with current Brookhaven town supervisor Ed Romaine (R) when he was county clerk before being elected to the Suffolk County Legislature in 2004. He then later ran for and was elected to the Suffolk County comptroller position in 2014, boasting at the time he was vastly outspent by his opponent on the campaign trail.

Bellone’s office came out the gate swinging as Kennedy’s candidacy was announced.

“No one has opposed government reform or voted to increase spending and debt more than John Kennedy,” said Bellone spokesperson Jason Elan in a press release. 

“Under [Bellone’s] watch, I have seen red light cameras pop up over intersection after intersection, finding new ways to put their hands in their pockets,” Zeldin said during Kennedy’s campaign announcement.

Kennedy was also joined by his wife Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), who is running again this year for re-election. Both husband and wife said partially it took so long for him to announce his candidacy because of the concern one’s campaign fight could affect the other’s.

“It was a weighing process for both of us,” Legislator Kennedy said. “It’s about what he can do to make it better here so that everybody can afford to stay.”

John Kennedy Jr. (R) in a 2014 debate at TBR News Media. File Photo by Erika Karp

Hot off an electoral victory from last November, Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) spoke to TBR News Media on a number of topics including a new county online tax filing system, the need for more cohesion on how towns send their tax rolls to his office and the potential of running for Suffolk County executive in 2019.

Online tax filing for delinquent taxes

Kennedy announced a new online filing service that will be available to Suffolk County residents after the tax season ends May 31.

‘With this new software component somebody is able to pay taxes on a Sunday.’

— John Kennedy Jr.

The program, called Citizen Self Service, will allow residents to plug in their bank account and routing numbers instead of sending the county a paper check to pay late or delayed property taxes. 

“With this new software component somebody is able to pay taxes on a Sunday,” Kennedy said. “[People who don’t use technology] are something we, in government, have to be mindful to accommodate.”

Each township’s receiver of taxes mails out tax bills mid-December and are payable to the tax receiver from Dec. 1 through May 31. If a resident fails to pay their taxes on time, they become delinquent and must pay their taxes to the county comptroller with an additional 5 percent interest plus 1 percent for each additional month the taxes are late. Payments received later than Aug. 31 are charged an additional tax sale advertising fee.

Kennedy said the existing pay-by-mail system will remain in place. The comptroller’s office also hosts a pay-by-phone system that allows property owners to talk to a representative and pay the bill that way, but Kennedy said that system is limited in the amount of time it takes and the business hours of the comptroller’s office. 

“We always must make an ability for someone to go ahead and transact,” he said.

Need for consistency between towns

The comptroller said there have been issues in the past with how municipalities report tax payments to his office. Suffolk County towns must give lists to the comptroller’s office on which bills were paid and those persons or businesses that are tax delinquent. The issue, Kennedy said, was no two towns currently use the same system to file these reports.

“I have 10 town tax receivers to deal with regarding their individual software systems for the record of tax collection,” he said. “We have to drive uniformity amongst the towns — one way or the other they will have to pass muster through us.”

Some towns are more accurate than others, according to Kennedy, as he named the Town of Islip as the most consistently accurate and on-time with its tax reports. Most municipalities collect approximately 90 to 95 percent of their areas property taxes. The comptroller’s office must then spend time going back and forth between the towns’ tax receiver offices to work out those discrepancies. 

Kennedy said he’s soon planning to implement, on a prototype “scrubbing system” that will find mistakes on each town’s end and flag them to be fixed before the documents reach the comptroller’s office. The system will first start on a preliminary basis with Brookhaven and Smithtown townships this year. 

Potential run for county executive

‘Do I think I could do a better job than the current county executive? Yes, my answer to that is yes.’

— John Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy is only a few months out from his Nov. 6 victory against Democratic challenger Jay Schneiderman for his second term in office. It was close as Kennedy received only 50.88 percent of the votes. 

Still, the comptroller is now weighing the pros and cons of running for the office of county executive.

“I am weighing the possibility, but I have not made any decision yet regarding it,” he said. “Do I think I could do a better job than the current county executive? Yes, my answer to that is yes.”

Part of his decision-making process is figuring if he would trust another person to take up the duties and responsibilities of Suffolk’s comptroller. 

“Do I know of anybody that comes to mind, anybody who would embrace the position that I have? I don’t know.” Kennedy said. “The thing that allows me to be aggressive, is the time I spent in the Legislature, the time I was minority leader, my experience in government and my experience as an attorney.”

Read TBR News Media next week for Kennedy’s take on Suffolk’s financial status, how it could impact residents and the upcoming police contract negotiations. 

Superintendent Jim Polansky. File photo by Rohma Abbas

According to a New York State Comptroller’s report, Huntington school district has been overestimating their budget costs for the past three years.

Because of those miscalculated expenses, the recent audit says tax levies may have been greater than necessary from 2012 to 2015, resulting in the district collecting excess money from taxpayers that became surpluses in their fund balance.

“District officials consistently presented, and the board approved, budgets which overestimated expenditures for these three years,” state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s (D) report said. “As a result, district officials spent an average of approximately $4.7 million less than planned each year.”

A fund balance is the surplus of budget funds at the end of the year, which can be set aside as savings until the total reaches more than 4 percent of that year’s budget. According to the comptroller’s office, if the reserve is higher than that, the money must be spent to lower property taxes, pay for one-time expenditures or reduce debt.

To avoid exceeding that 4 percent, the district rolled over the excess fund balance with the alleged intent of using the funds to finance district operations in the next budget cycle — but according to the audit that never happened.

“Total actual revenues exceeded expenditures by as much as $4.1 million and no amount of appropriated fund balance was used to finance operations,” the audit states. “As a result, the district’s tax levy may have been higher than necessary to fund district operations.”

The comptroller’s office said that between the false rollovers and overestimated costs, Huntington school district appeared to be under the 4 percent maximum — when really it wasn’t.

“As a result, the board and district officials may not have adequately presented the district’s financial condition to its residents.”

The report recommended that the district “develop procedures to ensure it adopts more reasonable budgets to avoid raising more real property taxes than necessary.”

In a response letter to the comptroller’s office, Huntington Superintendent Jim Polansky explained his position on the report.

“Our budget is an estimated spending and revenue support plan,” Polansky said. “As such, the district will continue to appropriate fund balance at a level estimated to address a potential operating deficit, but will always strive to spend within budgetary constraints and access available revenues to offset that spending.”

Polansky cited increasing enrollment — due to the reopening of the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School in 2013 and the opening of a housing development within district boundaries in 2014 — as the main drivers of increased budget appropriations.

School board President Tom DiGiacomo said Tuesday that the district would take all of the comptroller’s suggestions seriously.

“The administration and board have already taken and will continue to take the actions recommended by the comptroller in terms of responsibly analyzing historical trends in expenditures and revenue streams, while also considering fiscal uncertainties in particular areas,” he said in an email.

District administration and the board are in the process of drafting the budget for the 2016-17 school year. The next budget meeting is on March 21 at the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School.

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Town unanimously approves comptroller’s plan to breathe new life into aging vehicles through leasing

Smithtown Town Hall. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Smithtown is going ahead with plans to upgrade its vehicle fleet.

The Smithtown Town Board voted unanimously at its meeting last Thursday night, Jan. 21, to enter into an agreement with Enterprise Fleet Management and gradually upgrade its aging vehicle fleet. Over the next year, the town will begin phasing in 23 new high-mileage vehicles into its fleet with more to come, according to the agreement with Enterprise FM Trust.

The proposal came from town Comptroller Donald Musgnug, who brought Enterprise representatives to the board before a work session earlier this month calling on the town to upgrade its 192-vehicle fleet. Most of those vehicles, Musgnug said, were approaching two decades in age and six-digit mileage numbers.

“Clearly we have an aging fleet,” Musgnug said to the board at the work session. “Enterprise is one of the leaders in this industry. The proposal is on the table.”

Musgnug said Smithtown had about $986,000 set aside in its 2016 budget for the purchasing and maintenance of the town’s vehicle fleet used across various departments, and with Enterprise’s help, the town would be replacing about 173 of its vehicles over the next five years and save money while doing it.

According to the deal, Enterprise would purchase the vehicles directly from various manufacturers and use government incentives while leasing them out to the town for prices Smithtown would not be able to acquire on its own, the Enterprise leasing representatives said.

“We’ve been doing this with a lot of New York entities,” said Jacob Garth, government marketing manager at Enterprise at a work session earlier this month. “We do more than just managing and acquiring vehicles. When we look at the fleet, one of the key objectives we make is to lower the age of the fleet, and a significant portion of your fleet is more than 10 years old.”

Garth said that municipalities like Smithtown typically purchase their vehicles via state contractors, which often limit purchases to only one manufacturer. Enterprise, however, has more than 1.6 million vehicles in its fleet from a range of manufacturers, which Garth argued would give Smithtown more opportunity for savings through open-ended leases.

Fleet consultant Jay Greene of Enterprise also said his group has already signed onto similar agreements with Brookhaven and Huntington towns and started discussing plans with Smithtown back in September.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine. File photo by Erika Karp

Brookhaven Town failed to fully abide by New York’s affordable housing law, according to a state comptroller audit.

The audit, released Jan. 8, singled out eight governments across Long Island, including Brookhaven, zeroing in on their compliance with the Long Island Workforce Housing Act. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (D) said the town “generally complied” with the act, but did not properly manage an optional trust fund set aside for affordable housing.

The Long Island Workforce Housing Act was passed in 2008 to require developers building five or more homes on a property to allocate 10 percent of their prospective residential units to affordable workforce housing units, meant for people earning up to about $105,000. The law also said that developers could avoid building affordable housing units by paying a fee to the town, which would be deposited into a trust fund for the purpose of building affordable housing.

The towns of Babylon, Huntington, Islip and North Hempstead and the villages of Hempstead, Farmingdale and Mineola were also evaluated in the audit. Each government either reached or exceeded the 10 percent affordable housing requirement, the audit said.

However, in the audit DiNapoli said Brookhaven adopted a resolution in August 2014 establishing a housing trust fund, but did not set up guidelines and procedures establishing how the expenditures from that fund would be used until September 2015 — which was later than the mandated six-month timeframe required to set up those rules.

The audit noted that “there have been no expenditures from the trust fund during the audit period.”

But Brookhaven officials said they did not agree with the comptroller’s assessment. Diana Weir, commissioner of Housing and Human Services in Brookhaven, said the town was in full compliance before the comptroller released the audit.

“The issue with Brookhaven is that we’ve never given a developer that option,” Weir said about the fees for the fund, which was not mandatory to create. “To us [making developers build the affordable units was] better because we are actually building the units. But just in case we figured we’d [establish] a trust fund.”

Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said he was unhappy with the state’s assessment that the town only generally complied with the law. Because the town makes developers build affordable homes instead of paying to avoid the requirement, there isn’t any money in the trust fund account, Romaine said.

Of Brookhaven’s 924 housing units, 10 percent are affordable workforce housing units, according to the audit.

“What did Brookhaven do wrong?” Romaine (R) asked in a phone interview. “If Brookhaven required [developers] to build [affordable homes], why did we need a trust fund account? We’re actually fulfilling the law.”

In the preliminary draft of the audit, the comptroller suggested the town establish guidelines for the fund. That suggestion came several days after Brookhaven established rules for the fund. Despite this, the final audit didn’t reflect or acknowledge the change.

Brookhaven has always required developers to make affordable homes. During the recession, developers needed to allocate 20 percent of the residential units for affordable housing. Weir said purchasing affordable homes at the time was easier for prospective homeowners as prices of homes dropped. The town dropped the requirement to 10 percent once the market started improving.

“What the audit should have said is, ‘We recommend in the future that you set [the affordable workforce housing trust fund] up, but you’ve complied,’” Romaine said.

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Kings Park Central School District Superintendent Timothy Eagen says the district has already responded to recommendations made by the state comptroller’s office. File photo by Barbara Donlon

Changes have been made to the way that Kings Park Central School District officials track and record fuel usage for district vehicles, following an audit by the Office of the State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

The comptroller’s report recommended that written policies and procedures be adopted to ensure that fuel inventory is measured and records maintained, especially when fuel is delivered or pumped. The district has approximately 62 vehicles, according to the report.

“New formal fuel accountability procedures were adopted and went into effect on Dec. 14, 2015,” Eagen’s response said. “The new formal fuel accountability procedures require that tank fuel levels be measured — morning and afternoon — and reconciled both daily and every 10 days. The procedures also require that any significant reconciliation issues be submitted in writing to the superintendent of schools.”

The audit was conducted from July 1, 2014 through July 31, 2015, but the results were given to the district back in December. 

“The district has embraced all of OSC’s recommendations, and as of today, all of these recommendations have been fully implemented,” said Timothy Eagen, Kings Park Central School District superintendent.

Eagen said in his statement that he was happy to report that fuel accountability was the sole focus of the audit, and not issues with the district’s budget overall. “This speaks to the high level of internal controls and budgeting procedures that are typical of the Kings Park CSD,” Eagen said.

Issues with the district’s tracking of fuel stemmed from sloppy record keeping, not a loss of fuel, which would indicate potential theft or environmentally dangerous leakage, Eagen said. 

“On both the diesel and gasoline forms, Department personnel entered the same beginning and ending inventory amount on multiple lines of the forms or entered the same beginning and ending inventory amount even when fuel use was recorded that day,” the report said. These forms were provided during the audit period, in lieu of the hand written notes that were the only real source of record keeping before the audit.

“District officials are responsible for establishing procedures to provide assurance that vehicle fuel is accurately accounted for and used for appropriate District purposes,” DiNapoli’s report said.

“To determine day-to-day use for each fuel pump, department personnel subtract the previous day’s pump reading from the current day’s reading and note the gallons pumped. No reconciliation was performed to determine if the gallons pumped agreed with the change in stick reading from one day to the next.”

Prior to the audit period, the fuel pumps and tanks at the district’s bus garage were monitored by security personnel 24 hours per day along with video surveillance, though no official written policies or procedures were in place to assist employees in accurate tracking of the fuel inventory. The comptroller also recommended that all employees who use fuel document the gallons pumped, vehicle and type of fuel.

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File photo

Smithtown’s aging vehicle fleet might soon see a major upgrade.

Town Comptroller Donald Musgnug pitched a proposal at Tuesday’s Town Board work session that could essentially allow the town to trade in its dated cars and trucks for newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles. The Town Board discussed the potential fleet management agreement with representatives of Enterprise on Musgnug’s recommendations to act sooner than later.

“Clearly we have an aging fleet,” Musgnug said to the board members at Tuesday’s work session. “Enterprise is one of the leaders in this industry. The proposal is on the table.”

The comptroller said Smithtown currently manages 192 vehicles of varying sizes with many of them approaching two decades of use under the town’s ownership. Some of its most maintenance-heavy vehicles, he said, included a 1997 Ford F250 pickup truck with 285,000 miles on it and a Chevy Express 3500 cargo van with 184,000 miles on it. If the town were to sign onto a deal with Enterprise, representatives said, an advisor would help the town lower the age of its fleet to cut costs of maintenance and fuel by trading them out for newer, leased vehicles.

“We’ve been doing this with a lot of New York entities,” said Jacob Garth, government marketing manager at Enterprise Fleet Management. “We do more than just managing and acquiring vehicles. When we look at the fleet, one of the key objectives we make is to lower the age of the fleet, and a significant portion of your fleet is more than 10 years old.”

Garth said that municipalities like Smithtown typically purchase their vehicles via state contractors, which often limit purchases to only one manufacturer. Enterprise, however, has more than 1.6 million vehicles in its fleet from a range of manufacturers, which Garth argued would give Smithtown more opportunity for savings through open-ended leases.

Musgnug said his preliminary recommendations were to reduce Smithtown’s fleet size from 192 to 173 over five years.

“We’re looking at a phase-in approach because we currently have a maintenance crew of more than 20 auto mechanics in the town,” he said. “Phasing it in allows them to stay occupied, and through attrition, there may be some reduction because as you have some new vehicles, the maintenance lessens. This could be significant cost savings.”

Town Councilman Tom McCarthy (R) expressed steadfast support for the proposal to upgrade the town’s aging fleet and asked Musgnug if it was possible to phase new vehicles in over three years instead of five.

“Let’s get rid of all this garbage,” he said.

Fleet consultant Jay Greene of Enterprise said his group has already signed onto similar agreements with Brookhaven and Huntington towns and started discussing plans with Smithtown back in September.

Town Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R) said he felt the board needed to take more time to learn about its options and pushed the discussion to a later date. He also instructed Musgnug to touch base with his government counterparts in neighboring Brookhaven and Huntington in order to draft a report of testimonials from towns already working on a similar plan with Enterprise.

“I would think we would need more discussion amongst ourselves about whether or not we want to do this,” Vecchio said. “This is a discussion we need to have at another date, and we’ll contact Enterprise.”

Superintendent Michael Ring discusses the NYS Comptroller’s report with local residents. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Despite the New York State Comptroller’s audit report, Rocky Point school district is sticking to their guns.

Last week, on Nov. 19, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released completed audits of four school districts, including Rocky Point. In the audit, he claimed that the school district exceeded the four percent statutory limit on its fund balance between July 1, 2013 and March 31 of this year.

According to the audit, during the 2009-10 to 2013-14 fiscal years, the Board at the time had accumulated $13.1 million. However, the district only used $1.2 million, and experienced a surplus in their unrestricted fund balance. Rocky Point’s Superintendent, Michael Ring, said this fund is utilized in emergency situations where the district cannot afford necessary expenditures — this includes funding programs or accommodating a special needs child, among other reasons.

Ring refuted the comptroller’s financial report.

“Bottom line for us is that if we were over the four percent, our external auditors would be required to report that,” Ring said in a phone interview.

But the Superintendent said no such claims were filed. He added that the Comptroller’s odd method of counting the school’s fund balance is unusual, as excess money from one school year is added to the previous year’s closing bonds.

Ring mentioned that the Comptroller acknowledged the district’s fund balance was below four percent within that time period. Now, the district is between 5.4 to 7.8 percent, according to the Comptroller’s report. Taxpayer dollars contribute to the district’s unregistered fund balance. An excess of money in this fund means taxpayer dollars go to waste. Ring assured meeting attendees that is not the case for the district.

For Rocky Point school board members, acquiring funds for the unrestricted fund balance is a guessing game. The school district must base their fund balance amount on possible future expenditures that the school may not be able to afford without this fund balance. Typically, the district budgets its money conservatively. The district’s actual expenditures are within 0.2 percent of what they budgeted.

Some community members weren’t phased by the Comptroller’s report. When asked about it, Rocky Point resident Mary Heely said she was surprised by the news. She stood by the Superintendent’s word that the district didn’t exceed the statutory limit of its unrestricted fund balance. With the failure of the district’s bond, Heely, like some other community members, had other financial issues on her mind.

“According to Mr. Callahan,” said Heely, referring to Rocky Point Board of Education member Sean Callahan, “we may be in serious trouble if there was a major event in this district. I think that’s the bigger concern at this point, as far as the lack of funds that could be necessary in the future.”

Mayor blasts state comptroller’s scoring of village

Huntington Bay Village’s mayor is contesting a fiscal rating by the state comptroller’s office. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Huntington Bay Village’s mayor strongly disagrees with a recent release by the New York State Comptroller’s office ranking the municipality as susceptible to fiscal stress.

The comptroller’s office sent out a statement about the scores last week but Herb Morrow said  the score is misleading and Huntington Bay is in sound fiscal shape.

“The report is worthless because what they do is take a snapshot of one point in the year,” Morrow said in a phone interview. “They don’t take the financial planning into consideration.”

Morrow said the comptroller’s office ranked Huntington Bay as “susceptible” to fiscal stress in February because its reserve fund decreased.

“We did some major reconstruction of the police department to save taxpayers an enormous amount of money in the long term,” Morrow said. The reorganization included incentives and retirement costs that reduced reserve funds but, Morrow said, over time would reduce village payroll for police by $400,000.

“We are in great shape, and the residents are not listening to the comptroller’s story.”

Despite what Morrow said, the state comptroller’s office confirms Huntington Bay is susceptible to fiscal stress.

According to a statement from Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s office, “susceptible to fiscal stress” is the least severe of three categories that all municipalities found to be under fiscal stress were filed into. The other two category designations are “moderate fiscal stress” and “significant fiscal stress.”

In order to be designated as “susceptible to fiscal stress,” a municipality has to reach at least 45 percent of the total points of the fiscal stress score. The scores are made using annual financial reports that are submitted by local governments to the state comptroller’s office. Fiscal stress is usually defined as a local government’s inability to generate enough revenues within its current fiscal period to meet its costs. The comptroller’s system evaluates local governments based on both financial and environmental indicators.

The indicators of a local government’s financial state are its year-end balance, operating deficits, cash position, use of short-term debt and fixed costs. Environmental indicators include population, age, poverty, employment base and more. Fund balances, like Huntington Bay’s reserve fund balance, are used to identify the amount of money available to cushion revenue shortfalls or expenditure overruns.

According to DiNapoli’s office, a negative or low-level fund balance can affect the local government’s ability to provide services at current levels. It also claims that fund balance is a strong measure of the financial condition of a local government.

In a letter Morrow posted to the Huntington Bay website when the scores were originally released in February, he criticized the message that the comptroller’s office was sending to residents.

“It makes the jobs of local leaders harder. It is a waste of New York State taxpayer dollars,” Morrow said in the letter. “With no conversation or discussion with our village, we were given a negative designation that is very misleading to our residents. By releasing reports that create inane headlines, they confuse residents.”

Commack Superintendent Donald James presented the district's 2018-19 budget draft. File photo by Greg Catalano

A state audit cracked down on the Commack Union Free School District, accusing officials of mishandling funds and costing taxpayers.

The audit, which was released Aug. 5, said Commack school administrators needed to do a better job overseeing the budgeting process after the district overestimated expenditures in its adopted budgets and did not use surplus cash to finance operations. The audit also found the district did not maintain a “complete and adequate” record of its fuel inventory to safeguard and account for its fuel.

“From 2011-12 through 2013-14, total actual revenues exceeded expenditures by as much as $3.7 million,” Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said in the audit, and while the district had a $24 million fund balance, it only used $1.8 million to offset taxes. “Had district officials used more realistic budget estimates, they could have avoided the accumulation of excess fund balance and possibly reduced the real property tax levy.”

The report also found that discrepancies in the fuel inventory records were not investigated. According to DiNapoli, Commack’s head groundskeeper performed a monthly reconciliation of district fuel purchase and use records with the actual fuel on hand but never acted on discrepancies, even though anything left unresolved within 48 hours must be reported to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

In response, Commack Superintendent Donald James said the district had “varying fiscal philosophies” but cited a list of changes it would be implementing moving forward. As for the comptroller’s remarks on Commack’s financial condition, James kept it short and sweet.

“The district will review the expenditure budget areas and the variables affecting such areas discussed in the audit report in depth to assure reasonable estimates are presented,” he said in a statement.

District spokeswoman Brenda Lentsch said the district saves money through strong budgeting practices and all of its savings are returned to the taxpayers the following year.

“We go to great efforts not to spend the money the residents of this community entrust to us,” she said in a statement. “Further, the district returns every dollar not spent in the budget to the taxpayers to keep the tax levy as low as possible, and to continue to offer the multitude of programs and services that Commack is known for, and the community expects.”

On the subject of fuel inventory records, James had a lot more to say.

“The district has taken great care and effort to develop and implement new procedures to ensure that fuel supplies are adequately safeguarded, accounted for and protected against risk of loss or unidentified leakage,” he said in a response outlined within the audit.

Moving forward, James said the district would record, monitor and reconcile its fuel inventory via a senior account clerk and install video surveillance systems to monitor the area of the 2,500-gallon underground fuel tank and pump.

DiNapoli’s audit set out to evaluate the district’s overall financial condition and fuel inventory, specifically between July 1, 2013, and Nov. 30, 2014. The comptroller extended the scope of his audit back to July 1, 2011, however, to provide better perspective and background.

DiNapoli recommended the district develop procedures to ensure it adopts more reasonable budgets — to avoid raising more real property taxes than necessary — and use more of its surplus funds to support future budgets and reduce the burden on taxpayers. He also recommended the district adopt written policies to ensure fuel is periodically measured and to report discrepancies promptly.