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Jan 26, 2010 6:58 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Some worry about East Hampton's financial reorganization

Jan 26, 2010 6:58 PM

After the resignation last week of East Hampton Town Comptroller Janet Verneuille, Democratic critics said that new budget officer Len Bernard was poised to oversee an office that will be far more influenced by the whim of the town supervisor than would be an independent comptroller, who reports to the entire Town Board.

Ms. Verneuille began to oversee the town’s troubled finances in January 2009 and is the only certified public accountant and the only comptroller to ever serve in East Hampton Town government.

Although Ms. Verneuille was initially expected to stay on as comptroller under Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s new Republican administration, the new board chose, as one of its first moves, to appoint Mr. Bernard as budget officer, a post that had been eliminated by the previous Town Board last fall.

In making that decision, the board cut Ms. Verneuille’s salary by $40,000. Ms. Verneuille announced soon after that she would resign to take Mr. Bernard’s job as the business official of the Sag Harbor School District.

Mr. Bernard’s predecessor in the role of budget officer, Ted Hults, was at the center of a financial scandal under previous Supervisor Bill McGintee’s administration, and many blamed the lack of information emanating from the budget office during Mr. Hults’s tenure on the tight control Mr. McGintee had over information that was released from the finance department.

Mr. Hults, who is facing seven felony charges relating to his conduct while in control of the town’s finances, is due back in court on January 28. His attorney has postponed every court date since his arraignment in June 2009.

“Our financial office is crying for professional expertise. She also has an institutional knowledge of over a year that the incoming budget officer does not,” said Democratic activist and former Town Board member Debra Foster of Ms. Verneuille. “My second concern is, a budget officer by law answers only to the supervisor. The last Town Board learned that the hard way. The budget situation should be open to the public. I don’t mind that Len Bernard is there, but I think it got political right away and that’s unfortunate.”

Mr. Bernard, a former Republican councilman, served as the town’s budget officer during the tenure of Supervisor Jay Schneiderman from 2000 to 2003. He also ran for town supervisor twice, once in the mid-1990s and once in 2003 against Bill McGintee. Before he became involved in town politics he worked for 10 years as an auditor in the federal government’s General Accounting Office. He did not return calls for comment for this story.

If East Hampton kept the town comptroller position, it would need to hire a certified public accountant, and Mr. Bernard does not have those credentials.

“A CPA has a fiduciary responsibility to give you accurate numbers and to report to all five elected Town Board members,” said Ms. Foster.

Budget Advisory Committee Chairman Bob Kouffman said this week that it’s too early for him to tell what would be the most appropriate role for the town’s top fiscal officer. He said that his committee, which hasn’t met since early November, plans a public meeting with the full Town Board in the upcoming weeks to discuss both his committee’s role and the structuring of the town’s finance office.

“The board’s given every indication that they want oversight,” he said, though he added that his committee has been hamstrung by the resignation of two members—Job Potter and J.B. Desantos—last year. He said that ideally, he would like to see the committee restructured with seven to nine members.

Other Democrats also expressed dismay over Ms. Verneuille’s departure.

“It’s like firing your heart surgeon a day before your heart surgery. It’s kinda like when the Red Sox got rid of Babe Ruth,” said East Hampton Town Democratic Party Chairman Bill Taylor. “The supervisor is the chief fiscal officer for the town. He’s certainly going to pick who is best for him, but in the campaign, both candidates said it was important to keep a CPA. It seems to me that cutting their salary doesn’t seem like a wise and prudent fiscal move.”

“What she has done has been a very good piece of work,” agreed active town Democrat Ed Gorman. “Without her, I think that we are going to be losing ground.”

Ms. Verneuille had long called for more help in untangling the town’s budget mess, which is expected to add up to as much as a $28 million deficit when all of the town’s books are in order, and the 2010 budget passed by the previous administration included extra money for another accountant in the business office.

On Thursday, January 21, the Town Board appointed Neide Valeira, who has been working as a part-time accountant in the business office, to the full-time accountant position. Ms. Valeira was one of just three applicants for the job, which required the applicant pass the Civil Service exam for the title of accountant. She will earn $58,302 per year.

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Where were the Democratic Committee people when McGintee was influencing that office whith his whimsy.
By montaukman (98), easthampton on Jan 27, 10 6:01 PM
Bill Taylor's got some brass... as if the prior administration was a hundred years ago.
By zaz (197), East Hampton on Jan 27, 10 7:14 PM
Foster, Gorman and Taylor and all the other political Dems had no problem supporting McGintee the last five years, in spite of the frequent letters detailing his inappropriate behavior while he was a town police officer and after he was elected Supervisor.
Foster has a problem acknowledging Democratic political actions.
Another thing, Len Bernard knew what he was doing as Budget Officer the first time. Hults knew nothing - remember the first budget the McGintee administration proposed? ...more
By demi (10), East Hampton on Jan 28, 10 12:26 PM
Interesting that Deb Foster chose not to run and now has resumed her partizan ways, isn't it? Maybe Deb figured it out a coulpe years ago and left to avoid being caught up in this mess. What did Ms. Foster know and when did she know it?
By Lost Tribe (66), East Hampton on Jan 28, 10 9:58 PM
It seems to me Janet Verneuille is just a quieter version of the infamous Nick Lynn.
By montaukman (98), easthampton on Feb 5, 10 9:02 PM