Saturday March 16, 2013

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

POWNAL -- It appeared that initial steps to ease tensions between the Select Board and a town auditor were made Thursday.

The Board of Auditors will meet at 6 p.m. Monday to organize, according to auditor Ray Shields. He, along with recently elected auditor Betty Baker, were invited to the board meeting Thursday to talk about improving communication between the two groups. The third auditor, Christa Chenatille, was not able to attend.

The board hopes the auditors will discuss their findings among themselves and present recommendations to the board. The board has also created a policy that its permission is needed for town employees to speak to the town's attorneys when they will bill for the time. It also asked auditors to give town employees ample notice if they wished to see records so those documents could be made available.

Shields has had a number of contentious discussions with Select Board and its Chairman Stephen Kauppi over payroll errors. Shields claims the errors add up to around $20,000 going back as far as 2009. The board has taken issue with Shields going to state officials with his information before presenting it to the board, and they have also not been happy about consultations with a labor lawyer. According to the board, The Bonadio Group, the outside auditing firm it uses for annual reports, has reported less than a 1 percent margin of error in the town's record keeping, and that the Brattleboro labor attorney Timothy Copland has given the town the opinion that its practices are legal.


Advertisement

Former Auditor Clint Hutchins has disagreed with Shields' estimates, saying the errors he notes are common data entry mistakes and did not go above $3,000. He did not run for reelection this year.

Shields was elected last March and for this year's town meeting the board introduced a ballot article asking voters if they would eliminate the auditor positions and rely on a private auditing firm to oversee the town's books. The measure failed and some suggested it was politically motivated. Shields has been critical of the board for being resistant to his accessing payroll records and not taking his claims seriously as the town is "hemorrhaging money." Shields said employees have been overpaid, underpaid, and given vacation and sick days they did not earn.

Town Treasurer Ellen Strohmaier said errors can only be corrected in the current fiscal year and she would appreciate being involved in the auditors' discussions along with Select Board Administrative Assistant Linda Sciarappa.

After an executive session the board voted to hire Strohmaier to fill in for Sciarappa doing payroll and warrants when Sciarappa is on vacation, ill, or otherwise unavailable in order to avoid some of the errors that have been occurring.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr