The numbers painted a picture, and it wasn’t a pretty one, according to Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman.
His department had completed a limited financial audit of the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter (TOHAS) for the period Jan. 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2017. In a report released June 4, it found that the shelter “didn’t track taxpayer and donated dollars, frequently overspent on personnel and did not properly monitor spending.”
Schnirman’s predecessor, George Maragos, in response to numerous complaints and lawsuits directed at the shelter, had planned to scrutinize the staffing and operations there, but was blocked after the town gained a Nassau County Supreme Court ruling limiting the scope of the audit. The decision is still under appeal, Schnirman said.
Schnirman and Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen both won their elected offices in 2017. Exactly one month after she was sworn in, Gillen invited the comptroller to the shelter, where they announced the beginning of a financial audit that would be limited by the court ruling.
“I know there is a lot of passion behind this issue,” Schnirman said at a press conference announcing the results. “And probably also a little bit of politics. We all agree that it’s very important for our county’s largest township to have an animal shelter that is effective, efficient, responsive and most importantly, humane.”
Calling himself a lifelong pet owner and animal lover, Schnirman noted that, “When we got the invitation to play a role in the process of improving the [TOHAS}, that is something that we took seriously.”
Schnirman alluded to the active court order, and said that his employees “were met by long-serving town staff that were unresponsive, unwilling to cooperate and prevented us from getting the information we needed.”
He added, “I want to take a moment and highlight how unusual that is. I hope it’s an issue that is looked into by the town. Independent investigations are absolutely crucial for governments to be held accountable.”
The 82-page report related that “The auditors asked a number of questions and requested documentation in an effort to gain an understanding of the animal shelter’s staffing. However, Hempstead Town Attorney [Joseph Ra] informed Town Comptroller [Kevin Conroy] that these questions ‘go beyond the purview and jurisdiction of the financial audit….Please do not answer the questions under the heading ‘General Staffing’ questions.”
The comptroller went on to note that the TOHAS spends about 80 percent of its roughly $4 million budget on salaries. It was disturbing, he emphasized, “that we were denied job descriptions or organizational charts to get even a basic idea if the right people are being hired for the right jobs for the right reasons.”
He talked of how his officials were denied access to documents, and were not allowed to go to the shelter without appointments made through the town’s comptroller’s office, whose employees monitored the county auditors.
“Again, that’s not how these things normally work,” Schnirman emphasized.
Schnirman detailed various dubious expenditures and concluded, “Taxpayers’ dollars were not being protected properly. Every wasted dollar that goes to a high bidder instead of a low bidder, or to overtime, or to someone holding a job that they were not qualified for, or to unnecessary legal fees, is wasting money that could have been better spent on the animals.”
Schnirman urged the town to conduct an operational audit of the shelter with outside experts versed in animal care.
His office had invited comment during the audit, and the comptroller said that he had a list of 56 complaints that the town ought to investigate, as a start.
The town, in its response, “noted that the findings provide an opportunity…to take a broader look at the processes and make changes which strengthen internal controls,” the report stated.
The audit urged the town to take the following measures:
• Immediately undertake its own operational audit of the shelter with subject matter experts, including a detailed internal review of matters related to staffing, purchasing and the care of animals at the shelter;
• Establish a registered 501(c)(3) charity to provide transparency and accountability with donated funds
• Adhere to the town’s collective bargaining agreement
• Develop policies and procedures for fee waivers and discounts rather than operate on a case-by-case basis
• Require purchase orders to be completed before purchasing goods and services from vendors
• More carefully review overtime slips to document acceptable overtime work
• Follow the town’s procurement policy to promote increased competition amongst vendors to obtain quality services at the lowest price with consistent terms