Saturday October 13, 2012

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

POWNAL -- The town has more than $22,000 in various payroll errors since 2009, according to Ray Shields, a town auditor.

Tense dealings

Shields, whose dealings with the Select Board have been standoffish and tense, informed the board of his findings in a letter which was read in open session Thursday. According to Shields, on Oct. 1 he went to Montpelier to speak with Deputy State Auditor Joseph Juhasz.

"Mr. Juhasz was given the summary reviews of (payroll) warrants, 2009, 2010, 2011, as well as including notes from 2012, that numerous payroll errors have occurred on timecards, sick and annual leave usage, overpayments on vacation pay, sick leave, overtime claims, under payments, to cite a few concerns," Shields wrote.

At a meeting on Aug. 30 during which Shields’ auditing activities were criticized by board Chairman Stephen Kauppi, Shields said he had found a "thread" in employee payroll records and would have recommendations for the board by the end of the year.

"These findings resulted in a taxpayer cost/loss of over $20,000," Shields wrote in his recent letter. "This figure does not take into account previous years of warrants, which would seem to show a continuation of these errors in unreviewed (payroll) warrants."

Shields suggested the board do one of three things: hold an executive session to discuss his full report, hold an open meeting to discuss it, or send two board members to meet with him then have the members report to the board.

"On a very positive note, the state Auditor has offered to assist with the town making the needed changes in processing, and eliminating the future errors, by more accountability and oversight by different individuals in the town," he wrote. "The state Auditor if requested would work with the town in a constructive and positive manner."

Kauppi asked Clint Hutchins, chairman of the Board of Auditors, who was at the meeting for another matter, if Shields had discussed the findings with the other auditors and received the auditor board’s support as he indicated he would start doing at the Aug. 30 meeting.

Hutchins said Shields had not spoken to him about the matter. "I’m very disappointed because he said he would go over all his findings before presenting to the board," Hutchins said. "I think it’s an affront to me that he runs off to Montpelier without getting it verified as the auditor’s handbook says."

Kauppi said Shields’ actions as an auditor go against the Vermont League of Cities and Towns Handbook for Locally Elected Auditors, which in part reads, "An action of only one auditor in auditing town accounts has NO significance."

Kauppi said the board should table Shields’ letter until the other auditors can be notified. The motion to so was made and passed. "I won’t say this was done in an illegal way, but it was done in an unprofessional way, and it was not done by the auditors law of how it’s supposed to be done," Kauppi said.

"Is there any place he can be reported to?" asked board member Michael George.

"Probably not," said Kauppi. "It’s not working in the professional manner, and with the charges we get filed against us almost weekly for not doing things, dotting i’s and crossing t’s ... ."

"That’s what I’m saying," said George. "He can get on us and he gets away with it, but we sneeze the wrong way and we get reported."

Kauppi said that while numerous complaints about the board’s procedures are frustrating, Shields’ conduct does not warrant a complaint.

Board member Nelson Brownell said anyone in town has the right to do what Shields has done, and that his activity should be looked at for the moment in the same light as it would from a private citizen. "In some ways he’s not acting as the official he was elected to be," Brownell said, saying Shields has not followed the handbook he cited at the Aug. 30 meeting.

Shields did not return calls seeking comment.