Canton board retracts supervisor pay increase, cancels public hearing, accepts payback of past salary and approves accounting firm
Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - 8:34 pm

Canton town attorney Charles Nash, far left, explains the solution to the town supervisor's pay issue. Also pictured, from left, are Councilman Bob Washo, Supervisor David Button and Councilman Jim Smith. North Country Now photo by Adam Atkinson.

By ADAM ATKINSON

CANTON – A public hearing on a proposed and controversial salary change for the supervisor here was summarily canceled Wednesday night, after the board formally withdrew the law approving the salary increase.

The move followed work over the last day by town attorney Charles Nash and individual board members on finding a solution to a pay debacle with the town supervisor’s salary. Town Supervisor David Button has been receiving additional compensation over his approved salary that was advertised in the village budget since 2015 for accounting work in his department. 

While Button has the discretion to handle his department’s $53,000 budget and says the added pay for his work was approved by the board in 2015, by law, the board would have to formally pass a local law increasing his salary to compensate him for the work. There is no record of that original formal approval. 

To fix the situation, Nash in one-on-one phone calls with board members prior to the meeting determined a settlement whereby Button would pay back the amount of money paid him over his advertised salary since 2015. At the meeting Wednesday night, the town council approved receipt of a $73,794.16 check from Supervisor Button.

The money was the total amount that Button has received over his advertised salary for bookkeeping work in the office of town supervisor since 2015, work that was traditionally done by his wife Denice, who was a full-time employee until her retirement in 2015. Mrs. Button continued to work in the office after retirement handling payroll, human resources and clerical tasks for a small salary which would allow her to qualify for worker’s compensation should the need arise.

Public controversy regarding Mr. Button’s collection of the additional money for bookkeeping work traditionally paid his wife has surfaced recently.

This is an election year for the supervisor’s position.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the town board subsequently approved a payout of retroactive pay to Denice Button for the last three years for work she has done in the office after her formal retirement.

The payback to Mrs. Button is the $73,794.16, less a retirement adjustment, said Mr. Button in a phone interview Wednesday. Mr. Button said under the state retirement system, Mrs. Button can be paid up to $30,000 a year from government employment. “So the net back to us is less than we are returning,” said Mr. Button.

At the meeting Wednesday, Nash said Mrs. Button would receive three separate checks totaling $58,857.62. 

The board also passed a related resolution at the meeting approving the supervisor’s appointment of the accounting firm of John Gray to handle the town bookkeeping work for a fee of $4,150 a month for the remaining year starting Sept. 1.

Supervisor Button abstained from all votes related to the issue. 

“This is certainly going to be a better outcome for the town than what would have been achieved through the local law,” said attorney Nash at the meeting. 

The Buttons will be responsible for making their own adjustments to their tax documents.

Previously, the board had sought to repair the accounting of the supervisor’s salary for 2017 by passing a local law increasing his salary, while remaining within the budget of his department, to compensate him for the accounting work. 

After recent discussion, and a lengthy public comment session on the matter in June, the board formerly approved drafting a local law for the salary increase for Button from his budgeted $14,977, to $40,333 for his 2017 salary which would include the amount paid to his account for bookkeeping duties. The move was to correct only the accounting for the current year. The board at the time also directed town attorney Nash to request a comptroller audit of the town’s books to investigate the last three year’s accounting, part of which would be the supervisor’s budget.

Supervisor Button's salary has been frozen since June 30.

Due to the board’s June decision to draft a local law for the increase, a public hearing was required by law before the new, increased salary for Button was formalized. The board was expected to pass the salary law after the public hearing Wednesday, leaving a 30-day permissive referendum period during which the public could file formal, written comments on the increase, prior to the law taking effect.

However, with Button’s check accepted by the town board at the meeting, the salary change was not required, and the board retracted the increase. Subsequently, a public hearing on the increase was also not required, and the hearing was canceled.

Although the public hearing was canceled, members of the public were allowed to voice opinions on the issue. Some expressed confusion over the accounting settlement and others were still not comfortable with what they viewed as a lack of transparency even in this most recent action by the board on the matter. 

“The work was done and someone needs to be compensated for it,” said Councilman Bob Washo during the meeting. Washo pointed out earlier in the discussion that this most recent accounting adjustment would be subject to the state Comptroller’s audit.

“This was the best path forward that I have seen,” said Councilman Phil LaMarche. “It puts the money back where it was budgeted to go. This (receipt of the check from the Button’s) restored that.”

“I have said there were missteps. What this does is go back and reset,” said Button. 

Members of the public in attendance expressed what they felt was inadequate public involvement in how the issue was handled. 

“It was a lack of transparency that got us to this point and this just continues within this 11th hour,” said Danny Thomas, town resident. 

Town resident Barb Beekman called the situation a “magic numbers game.” 

“Going forward how will this be different?” Beekman said.

“What is the board doing to increase transparency?” asked resident Jessica Prody. Prody pointed to what she felt was a lack of public notification about the time of meetings in general and what agenda items would be considered by the board and urged them to produce more of this information on the town website.

Some questioned if formal board agreement of this recent settlement to accept the check was made before the official meeting. Town attorney Nash and the board members stated that council members were each contacted by phone individually prior to the meeting with the idea. Any meeting of three or more board members constitutes a formal meeting which would have to be open to the public and announced.

“It allowed for a consensus so when we got here tonight we could move forward,” said Councilman Jim Smith. 

Councilman Paul Backus reiterated that sentiment. “Transparency is a great word, sounds great, but I don’t know how we would get anything done if we can’t discuss things one on one before we come together,” said Backus.

“My great hope is that the comptroller’s office is going to come in and give us best practice moving forward,” said Washo.

“My issue is that the money is still going back to David’s (Button) household. It’s laughable,” said resident Charles Rouse. 

Attorney Nash said if the town does not compensate properly for work that was done under an approved budget, it could present a legal issue. Town economic development coordinator Leigh Rodriguez agreed with Nash’s opinion on the compensation issue later in discussion. “I don’t believe there is an option to not compensate someone for their work. The municipality has a legal responsibility to pay someone for that work,” Rodriguez said. 

Town resident Pete Beekman said the council members should have handled the issue in the public arena since the issue started, instead of Button. 

“The optics of you (Button) still owning this thing is why we are still in this room,” Beekman said. 

When reached by phone earlier Wednesday prior to the meeting, Button told this reporter of the settlement idea still under consideration by the attorney and individual members of the board at that time prior to formal approval later Wednesday night at the meeting.

“The board members have come up with a solution regarding the supervisor pay issue,” said Button during that phone call. “I have just written a check out from our (Button’s and Mrs. Button’s) joint account for $73,794.16 to the town for the amounts that I have received for my bookkeeping (since 2015).”

Upon Mrs. Button’s retirement in 2015, the supervisor, who according to state law, has complete control over his budget for his department, took on the roll formerly of bookkeeper and began collecting a large portion of the salary traditionally collected by his wife and deposited into their joint account.

The work that garnered the pay in question was still being done by Button’s office where he and his wife worked, and the same pay allotment under the budget was still being paid into their joint account.

“Over the years in which we were in business together, and the past 16 years with the town, my wife and I have never quibbled over who does what work, or over who gets the money,” Button said. “If this makes everybody happy, we’re happy.”

“The flexibility with which previous boards have allowed the supervisor’s office to structure its activities have made some of our newer (board) members uneasy. We can adapt to that change,” Button said during the phone conversation.