By ADAM ATKINSON
CANTON — Questions regarding the amount of the town supervisor’s salary and additional pay he received for bookkeeping duties within his office may get a review by the state Comptroller’s office.
With more than 30 townspeople in attendance at the council meeting here Wednesday night to voice concerns over Town Supervisor David Button’s paycheck, the council decided to request the state Comptroller’s office conduct a formal audit of town dealings overall, including the supervisor's salary.
The town board also approved a measure Wednesday night directing the town attorney to draft a local law which would reset the supervisor's salary at $40,333 for 2017. The public hearing on that local law is scheduled for Aug. 9 at 5 p.m.
Many of those in attendance at the public comment portion early in the night voiced a loss of confidence in Button and how the town handles its business.
Since 2015, when Button’s wife Denise formally retired as a bookkeeper in Button’s office, most of her allotted salary has been reallocated to Button under an arrangement the supervisor said was approved of by the town board at the time, although no formal approval was apparently recorded.
Currently, Mrs. Button collects $50 per pay period which allows her to qualify to receive worker’s compensation if required, Button said at the meeting. She is officially retired, but continues to work hours in the office on bookkeeping duties and human resources tasks, said Mr. Button.
Retired town judge David Nelson who was in attendance stated that the town supervisor was effectively receiving two salaries and he inquired of Canton town attorney Charles Nash as to the Comptroller’s opinion of that situation.
“That’s why we have to fix it,” said Nash.
Nash said Button’s advertised and enumerated salary for 2017 was $14,977, but he was paid ostensibly more while serving as the bookkeeper as well. Button can appoint his own bookkeeper and can even legally draw two salaries, one as bookkeeper and one as supervisor, as long as the board approves his overall pay with a local law.
“We need to correct the situation, whereby we advertised a salary last year and we paid out more than that,” Nash said. “The salary being paid up to June 30 was different than what was advertised.”
Nash said the council is looking at how to fix the situation in next year’s budget with more specifics on salaries within departments.
“Was it or was it not legal?” asked resident Charles Rouse.
“It was not done properly,” said Nash.
Because Canton is considered a Class A town, which means it has in excess of 10,000 people, Button under state law has the discretion and broad, arbitrary control over the bookkeeping duties of his office, including who works in the position and how much they are paid out of his department's budget.
By law he can chose how his department’s budget, about $53,000, is spent to conduct the business of the office. However, as an elected official, his salary is approved by the town board in the budget and advertised. His salary for supervisor’s duties, by law cannot exceed that advertised amount in the course of the budget year unless a local law is passed.
Nash said the board needs to formally approve a local law within the budget year which will set the supervisor’s salary at an agreed upon amount. The local law would be subject to public comment and a 30-day permissive referendum before being officially approved.
Later in the meeting, after the public comment session was over, the board approved a resolution directing the attorney to draft a local law which sets the town supervisor’s salary at $40,333 for 2017, leaving about $12,500 of the office’s roughly $53,000 budget to pay a new bookkeeper to start work in the fall.
The board set the public hearing for the law for Aug. 9 at 5 p.m. and the council is expected to vote on the law after that hearing. Following that vote, a 30-day permissive referendum will allow members of the public to collect a required amount of signatures to force the measure to a public vote.
If the signatures required are not collected, the law will be filed in Albany as official.
Pay for the supervisor has been frozen since June 30. To date, Button estimated that about $25,000 of the $53,000 supervisor’s department budget has been expended thus far for the year. Pay following approval of the proposed local law would have to be pro-rated based on the amount remaining in the budget.
“We probably made some mistakes,” admitted Button of the accounting for the bookkeeper’s pay and how it was redistributed to him.
Recently, the issue of the supervisor’s pay, combined with the amount he has been receiving for the bookkeeping portion (which is not a board approved amount) was brought up by Councilman Bob Washo, who questioned the amounts at a meeting last month.
At that time, Button stated that the board did speak about the issue at a meeting in 2015 and did approve of the rearrangement of pay. However, research by Washo turned up no data on this in old meeting minutes from the time, which raised questions for him and for members of the community he said last month.
“We now realize that we probably should of come out and put that on the record, and I’m sorry we didn’t do that,” Button said.
Several public comments Wednesday night regarding Button's suggestion of having an independent audit of the town supervisor's office, led the council to pass a formal motion to request the Comptroller’s scrutiny on all aspects of the town’s accounting and how the various departments conduct business. Town board members specified later in the meeting that they wanted a review covering 2015, 2016 and 2017.
At the start of the public comment, Button announced that he was planning to suggest to the board that an audit of his office be conducted by local accounting firm Hoffman, Eells & Gray, CPAS, P.C.
“I thought it would be helpful for someone with more professional expertise to evaluate what is going on,” said Button.
The suggestion by Button to have an independent local firm conduct the audit elicited a few comments from the gathered public, notably how this proposed audit would be paid and why the choice of a firm should be his. Button said that the contractual fund included in the supervisor’s budget, would cover the estimated $1,200 of an independent audit.
Button said he suggested Hoffman, Eells & Gray because they are one of the few local firms that he does not have personal business with.
“It sounds like its been pretty loose and comfortable for everybody,” said resident Claudia MacDonald. “(An audit) seems like something the board should vote on.”
“Why wasn’t it put out for bid,” said MacDonald.
“A local choice does fall short,” said Councilman Washo, regarding picking an auditing firm.
Button reiterated that he felt a local audit was a good choice, stating that the determination of the supervisor and his bookkeeper enjoying greater benefits under the current arrangement would be better verified by a certified public accountant.
“The problem here David, is that you are making all of the decisions, and you need to stop doing that,” said resident Pat Aldin.
“It would be beneficial for a wider town audit,” said James Norminton, a Canton resident and former internal auditor with the Canadian government’s court system. “Especially since its been so long that you have had a review.”
A town resident in the audience stated that the last comptroller audit was done in 2010.
“I think this is an issue of public trust,” said Councilman LaMarche. “If everything is above board then we have nothing to lose.”
“For me, it’s about best practices moving forward,” said Washo.
Councilman Jim Smith said he went through two audits during his stint as town supervisor previously and he didn’t have an issue with another. “It’s been 10 years. It’s probably due.”
Councilman Paul Backus questioned the timing of a state audit, which may not happen until early next year. “My only concern is this is July and if they come in February, then what have we accomplished.”
Rouse suggested a pair of audits, one local and then the Comptroller’s. The board discussed the issue briefly, with Button supporting the measure, however no resolution was passed to launch a local audit with a more immediate time frame.
Norminton said the town needs to post the results of the audit on its website to rebuild the public trust. “So we can all see it and we can all have confidence,” he said.
Other town residents in the gallery expressed concerns over what they labeled nepotism of hiring a spouse to serve in the supervisor’s department and the lack of transparency at the town government level in general, and how Mrs. Button’s full-time bookkeeper position was transitioned to a part-time position and yet still allowed her to collect a buy-out on her town insurance policy, a practice in other departments as well.
Pete Beekman of Canton asked if the town had advertised for the position of bookkeeper. Button pointed out that the supervisor’s office has the authority to point who they want to that position.
“Shouldn’t there be a fair process,” said Beekman, pointing out that such a process should involve review and input from the board. “And then you make the final decision.”
Norminton stated that the board should be appointing the bookkeeper to avoid the appearance of any impropriety. “And, even though they’ve been doing this for the last 50 years, they’ve been doing this wrong for the last 50 years.”
“The board should have confidence and the public should have confidence,” said Norminton.
“I really hope that you (the board) will not be as passive as you have been in the past,” said Aldin. Aldin said it “really worried” her that Button had come to the meeting with a local auditing firm already picked that he was planning to suggest to the board to take a closer look at the situation.
“Bob (Washo) came with a better recommendation, and I voted for it,” said Button.
“We do have a code of ethics in the town,” said Washo. The councilman said however, that the state code has stronger language regarding nepotism. “And I would hope during the Comptroller’s audit that that would be one of the things they will look at going forward.”