The commissioners of the Bridgehampton Fire District plan to strip the district’s longtime manager of much of his authority, and salary, in what they say is a move to improve the transparency and efficiency of the district’s financial management.
The district has hired an upstate legal firm that specializes in fire and EMS department oversight to handle the district’s financial management going forward, replacing Fire District Secretary/Treasurer Charles Butler. That firm has already begun a forensic examination of the district’s bookkeeping and says it has found a number of expenditures that suggest more oversight was needed.
In a letter to district residents, published as an ad in The Southampton Press, the five Bridgehampton Fire District commissioners said they have been unhappy with the level of accountability and transparency in the district’s financial management for some time and have chosen to turn to a professional legal and financial management team to administrate the district’s bank accounts, policy guidelines and track its use of its $1.6 million annual budget.
As part of the move, the commissioners plan to abolish the department’s appointed and salaried secretary position, held for more than 30 years by Mr. Butler, at the end of the year. In addition, the commissioners say, they will slash the salary for Mr. Butler’s elected position of district treasurer. He was most recently elected to the treasurer’s post in 2011 to a three-year term and earned a total of $60,000, plus benefits, for the two posts.
Mr. Butler could not be reached for comment by phone or at the district’s offices at the Bridgehampton Fire Department headquarters.
Since beginning to work with the district last month, the Pinsky Law Group said this week, a number of financial transactions have been discovered in district records that raised concerns, a point alluded to in the district’s letter to residents.
“We have found a number of expenditures which we are questioning the propriety of,” said Brad Pinsky, head of the Pinsky Law Group, a Syracuse-based firm that represents more than 500 fire districts and fire departments statewide. “We make no accusations. Some of them are instances where we found checks that were written that did have vouchers attached which would appear not to have been approved by the commissioners. In the future, every expenditure will be closely monitored and fully approved by the commissioners.”
District Board of Commissioners Chairman Steve Halsey said that the board has been criticized for having fired Mr. Butler; he said that hasn’t taken place yet, although he acknowledged that Mr. Butler’s secretary position, much of his $60,000 salary and his approximately $20,000 a year in benefits will be eliminated at the end of next month. Mr. Butler will continue receiving an approximately $1,500 annual stipend for his role as the district treasurer. He will be up for reelection in December of next year.
“Everybody is saying that Charlie is fired—he is not fired and he is still getting paid,” Mr. Halsey said. “The rest of it is next year.”
Pinsky Law Group will be paid a flat management fee of $60,000 a year, according to Mr. Pinsky. He noted that employing his firm will save the district on the costs of hiring a bank reconciliation and payroll company, as the district has done in the past.
Commissioner Dean Foster said that the shift in management and oversight, from his standpoint, was primarily driven by a desire among the commissioners to modernize the overall management of the department and that detailed oversight of the district’s bookkeeping was an integral component of that.
“The fire department has been run in something of a good-old-boy manner for many years,” Mr. Foster said this week. “In today’s world, that has to change. It has to be more closely managed. We’ve been lax on a lot of things, keeping up with state policies and new codes, and those are things the new lawyer is going to make sure we’re up on.”
Mr. Halsey, who has been chairman for 10 years, and whose term of office is up in December, said that as part of the overhaul, the commissioners would be required to play a more active role in the oversight of the district’s management than they have in the past. “We’re just trying to keep up with the times,” he said of the changes in management. “The commissioners are going to be much more hands-on. In the past, we would approve the vouchers but we rarely saw bank statements. We could ask to see them, but they weren’t readily available. That all has to change.”
Two former commissioners said this week that the past oversight did not lack for any ability to examine the financial records and track spending—only the will for it.
“I wouldn’t have been on that board if I wasn’t comfortable that those finances were being conducted 100-percent aboveboard,” former commissioner John Muse said. “Any inquiry I ever made was always met, 100 percent.”
Another former commissioner, Jeff Louchheim, also staunchly disagreed with the characterization of the district’s bookkeeping being shielded from the commissioners. “All the financial records were provided or available in a second’s notice,” he said. “When I was a commissioner, the reconciliations were provided for anyone to look at, at every meeting. We would see every check and every account balance. And if anybody at any time wanted to get a look at the books, they could get it.
“Not to mention,” he added, “every commissioner has the key to Charlie’s office.”