The Westhampton Beach Village Board of Trustees has hired an outside attorney to review the village’s financial books after discovering a clerical error that led to its full-time employees being overpaid by about $22,000.
Mayor Conrad Teller, who opposed hiring the special counsel at a meeting on Wednesday, October 10, said the following day that the action was sparked by an accounting error in which the village forgot to take into account leap year and overpaid its employees by one day.
The mayor said the mistake, made by Village Clerk Rebecca Molinaro, resulted in all 34 full-time village employees, including himself, being overpaid by approximately $22,000 in total. Mr. Teller said those employees have been notified that the village will withhold the amount they were overpaid this coming year.
“Accounting errors have happened a few times in the history of the village,” said Mr. Teller, stating that the resolution specifically targets Ms. Molinaro. “It is not a horrendous thing—it just happens.”
Mr. Teller was the sole dissenter in a resolution introduced by Deputy Mayor Hank Tucker, which was approved, 4-1. He noted that Mr. Tucker announced his intention to submit the resolution following the board’s last executive session on October 4.
The resolution states that the trustees were concerned “that there may have been certain discrepancies” with village finances “including but not limited to payroll and expenditures …” As a result, they agreed to hire attorney and former Bellport Village Clerk Scott B. Augustine at a rate of $175 an hour, for up to $5,000, to investigate financial transactions over the past year.
Mr. Tucker became visibly angry at times during Wednesday night’s meeting when two village residents—village blogger Dean Speir, who had two unsuccessful bids for trustee in 2007 and 2011, and Victor Levy, chairman of the Village Planning Board—asked several questions of the board, including what led to the need for an outside entity to review the village’s books when its annual audit was set to begin this week. That audit will be completed by Satty, Levine and Ciacco CPA of Jericho, Mr. Teller said.
“The resolution speaks for itself,” Mr. Tucker said during the meeting, declining to offer an explanation.
This week, Mr. Tucker said the decision to hire an outside counsel is completely separate from the audit. Although the attorney may request to see some of the information from the audit, the intent is to have an in-depth analysis of the village finances and looking for potential legal issues.
Though he declined to talk about what prompted his request, Mr. Tucker said he was not conducting a “witch hunt” and that the pending evaluation will be a comprehensive look at all of the village’s finances.
“We are doing exactly what taxpayers elected us to do,” Mr. Tucker said. “We are looking out for taxpayer money and that it is spent properly, so we brought in an outside person to review and investigate for the board.”
This week, Mr. Tucker added that if the trustees had a political motive to remove Ms. Molinaro from office, they never would have voted to reappoint her in July during the annual village reorganization meeting.
“There were certainly opportunities at the village reorganization meeting where we could have taken action,” he said. “We would have no reason to wait until now.”
The mayor later added that if accounting errors were made, it is up to all of the trustees, and not just the village clerk, to identify them. He also said the attorney would have to find deliberate financial errors in order for the board to take disciplinary action against Ms. Molinaro.
“There would have to be gross negligence and deliberate malfeasance on her part to trigger anything,” Mr. Teller said. “I am here every day and I have not seen anything.”
“The trustees have a job to do,” Trustee Patricia DiBenedetto said this week. “That job is to monitor village property and finances—we want to assure people that their tax dollars are properly being spent.”
This week, Trustee Ralph Urban said he thinks proceeding with the outside attorney is the best option for the village at this time because not all five trustees agree on the decision.
“I can agree that not everybody agrees totally,” he said. “That always makes things a little more difficult and tense—we agreed to proceed this way, and that was the best thing for everyone at this point.”
Ms. Molinaro said last week that the payroll problem is common among municipalities because the fiscal year does not coincide with the calendar year.