In 2010, the Franklin Town Board stopped their annual internal auditing of the town books and stopped releasing an accounting, both required under NY Town Law. In addition, they did not file an Annual Update Document of this accounting with the Office of the State Comptroller, required under NY Municipal Law.
In 2014, after the OSC audit of town financial operations for 2012 and 2013, our town government agreed with the findings (letter, 4/30), and agreed to restart auditing and filing (Comprehensive Action Plan, 7/16), but they have not.
In 2016, The New Franklin Register learned of this audit, which had never been discussed in town meetings – contrary to the practice of neighboring towns and Delaware County. During late 2016 and early 2017, the newspaper requested these accountings, but without success.
In 2017, to bring this matter before the Franklin community, the NFR published a series of investigations. All that time, repeated requests were stonewalled, with the supervisor Jeffery Taggart stating only that “we’re working on it.” The supervisor served his first two terms without producing a single accounting.
In November, this problem was brought to the attention of the regional community through letters to the editor in The Reporter (Walton) and The Daily Star (Oneonta) by Associate Editor Brian Brock. To date, no accounting has been released.
What might be in the town finances that our board does not want the townspeople to see, something they would be willing to break multiple state laws for, nine years in a row? This ill-advised practice has continued under two supervisors (Smith and Taggart) who as the town financial officers are responsible. Each has had the tacit consent – at the very least – of a dozen councilmen and women. Clearly, this is a long-standing policy of our Republican government.
Absent the AUDs for 2009 to 2017, a few scraps of information can still provide hints. The last six complete Annual Update Documents that our board did file, 2003 to 2008, are available from the NY Office of the State Comptroller website.
At its most basic, the formula for our town budget is:
appropriations = revenues + unexpended funds + property taxes + loans.
The annual budget document for next year lists appropriations spent for the previous year. Because the board has not audited the town books, we do not know how accurate and complete this list is.
Similarly, the annual budget document for next year lists revenues collected for the previous year. Because the board has not audited the town books, we do not know how accurate and complete this list is.
In November of the years 2003, 2004, and 2005, the town board reported estimated totals of unexpended funds as $67,000, $65,000, and $80,000, respectively. Two months later, in January of each following year, the board reported to OSC actual totals of unexpended funds as approximately $304,000, $333,000, and $300,000. Our board was carrying on the books over a quarter million dollars more cash than it was reporting to the townspeople, and this at a time when the budget ran $1.0 to $1.3 million.
In the decade since the rebuilding of local roads (2006 to 2008), the annual budget document reports a total of estimated unexpended funds at close to a quarter million dollars: $225,000 to $264,000. This total remains remarkably constant, rarely changing more than a few thousand dollars year to year.
Similarly, the amounts in individual accounts typically remain the same from year to year. For example, for the Highway Whole Town account (DA), the estimated amount left at the end of December was somehow the same $36,000 for eight years in a row, 2010 to 2017.
But every few years, the amounts in individual accounts are rearranged while the total for all accounts remains the same or nearly so. For example, at the public budget hearing last November, Supervisor Taggart announced that the estimates printed in the preliminary budget document from October had been changed. (Those numbers were identical to those of the previous year.) Instead, estimated unexpended funds in General Whole Town (A) went from $41,000 to zero, in Highway Whole Town (DA) went from $36,000 to $117,000, and in Highway Outside of Village (DB) went from $150,000 to $110,000. Despite these sizeable revisions to individual accounts, the total remained the same.
These line items behave less like monies left unspent at the end of the fiscal year and more like reserve funds rolled over from year to year.
In September of last year, the NFR made a FOIL request to the OSC for documents related to its audit of town financial operations, the resulting report, and responses to that report. From an email between the auditor and his supervisor (10/18/13), the auditor states that while Town of Franklin does not have “formal reserves,” it does use saving accounts.
There is one source of revenue that is not reported in the annual budget document: taxes on real property, the single largest source of funds to finance town operations. In fact, property taxes are larger than all other revenues combined.
The Franklin AUD of 2008 reports a debt of $2.5 million. The flood of July 2006 required extensive repairs to local roads. Presumably grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were used to pay down this bond. However, this 2008 report was the last one filed, and therefore we do not know when this debt was retired. What is more, without subsequent accountings, townspeople cannot be sure if our board has taken on more debt.
What these fiscal issues have in common is their contribution to the cash on hand. One way to address these issues is by examining the balance sheets. A balance sheet is a financial statement of the capital, liabilities, and assets of the town municipal corporation at a particular point in time, laying out the balance of revenues and expenditures over the preceding period. An end-of-year balance sheet lists all funds carried over into the next year.
For the years that Franklin did file annual reports, these balance sheets are also posted on the OSC website. For the years that the town did not, the NFR made a request under the NYS Freedom of Information Law for Franklin balance sheets for the years 2000 to 2017 to the financial officer, Supervisor Taggart.
These balance sheets were sent to the NFR but arrived on the day of our deadline for this spring issue, February 21. An analysis of these almost hundred pages of financial documents will be in the summer issue.
Recently, the campaign of The New Franklin Register for transparency in town finances, now well into the second year, has had limited success. In the February meeting, the town board appointed a committee of councilmen Donald Smith and Dwight Bruno. In the March meeting, the committee reported that they found no issues with the books according to state guidelines and this audit was accepted by the board – but only for 2017. We have yet to see a report for that year or any year since 2008.
We the townspeople should know how our town board spends our taxes. The way to do so is by examining the recent accounting – information that the town board withholds. First, the board’s annual budget document does not fully report these numbers. Second, the board has not filed an end-of-year accounting since 2008. Third, the board did not disclose an OSC audit and resulting report, and afterward it continued not to file AUDs.
We hope that the restart of audits is the beginning of this stone wall coming down.