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Audit uncovers water district mismanagement

The Plainview Water District responded to an auditor’s recent findings. (Photo courtesy of the Plainview Water District)

In August of 2017, the Plainview Water District hired a new business manager to get its finances in order—but the details of the fiscal and operational mismanagement only fully came to light after outgoing Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos released his official audit.

Just before Christmas, Maragos released a two-year, 2015-16, audit of the Plainview Water District, which uncovered operational, personnel and fiscal deficiencies, as well as possible abuse of public funds and higher than necessary rate increases exceeding the 2 percent tax cap by as much as 300 percent, according to Maragos and his team of auditors.

“The Plainview Water District was a case study in mismanagement, run like a bad family business and not as a public utility,” said Maragos. “Everywhere the auditors looked they found fiscal, administrative and control deficiencies.”

Maragos said that findings indicate that district residents were paying some of the highest annual commissioner stipends, which is more than double to comparable water districts such as Port Washington and Glenwood.

However, Maragos also said the Plainview Water District responded promptly to the audit and the district’s newly hired business manager is a CPA with extensive experience in governmental accounting, financial reporting and compliance with laws and regulations—all of which are crucial to getting the district’s budget back on track.

“The new superintendent and business manager have indicated that they are taking actions to correct many of the audit findings,” said Maragos. “We are pleased that the new superintendent has accepted the audit recommendations and seems eager to implement changes.”

To the water district’s credit, its website offers complete transparency in regards to its annual budget and audited financial statements at www.plainviewwater.org/about.financials-budget. And in response to Maragos’ findings, the district posted a message to its customers, complete with detailed responses to each finding, at www.plainviewwater.org/news/news-articles.

“This audit was an opportunity to bring to light and show the public past practices under the former superintendent and former commissioners. The current board does not agree with the practices of the past and has taken many steps to get the district back on track. The district is positively aligned and committed to make any improvements necessary to ensure nothing interferes with regaining the public’s trust. This board does not agree with patronage jobs or unethical spending,” the district said in a statement.

Maragos’ Findings In The Audit Included:

• In both 2015 and 2016, the budgets included tax levies that were 6 percent higher than the previous year’s budget, which exceeded the state’s 2 percent tax levy cap. The resulting unexpended surplus was not used to lower rates.

• Commissioner compensation was among the highest for water districts in Nassau by more than double to comparable water districts.

• Supplemental benefits such as dental, optical, AFLAC and life insurance averaged almost $6,000 per full time employee per year. Total employee benefits averaged $35,000 per full time employee per year.

• During the audit period, there was 162 million gallons of unaccounted water loss unbeknownst to the district.

• The district employed four full-time and seven part-time employees, approximately 40 percent of staff, who were immediate family members of two commissioners and two former commissioners, the former superintendent and the clerk to the board.

• A lack of managerial oversight allowed the clerk to the board to grant excess leave to the spouse and to process unapproved leave requests, including 55 hours of leave for herself.

• Approximately $7,000 in payouts to three employees upon their separation from the district were not adequately documented or explained, and were not in accordance with district policies or an employment agreement.

• The district’s records lacked documentation to substantiate the validity and appropriateness of travel and conference expenses totaling over $44,000. None of the reimbursement claims submitted used a standardized travel claim voucher, which violated the district’s own policy.

• Late payment fees were not applied in accordance with town law and district policy. In addition, waivers of late fee penalties were not approved by the board or documented in board minutes.

• The district lacked adequate internal controls over purchasing and did not follow state law or its own purchasing policies in 73 percent of the purchases reviewed. The purchase and use of fuel was not adequately monitored.

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