Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Compliance on the town board agenda

Jodi Summit
Posted 5/11/16

GREENWOOD TWP- The theme that ran through the three-and-one-half hour long Greenwood Town Board meeting, Tuesday, was one of accountability. And once again, a full house was seated as the board …

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Compliance on the town board agenda

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GREENWOOD TWP- The theme that ran through the three-and-one-half hour long Greenwood Town Board meeting, Tuesday, was one of accountability. And once again, a full house was seated as the board members tackled their agenda.

The new clerk, Sue Drobac, was still learning the ropes, and scrambled to get extra copies of agendas passed out, as well as finding some missing pages from the financial reports.

But before the financial reports for April could be approved, Supervisor John Bassing asked some questions about a $5,190 bill from the township’s previous law firm Hanft Fride, of Duluth. The bill included a series of phone calls and emails in March. Attorney Tim Strom also made a trip up to Greenwood to attend the annual meeting.

Bassing asked for the reasons for the calls, which were only briefly noted on the accompanying bill. The bill noted calls about conflict of interest questions relating to the election and fire department, and then a series of calls relating to the incident on March 18, the day the new clerk was sworn in but denied access to the clerk’s records and office, along with, apparently, some follow-up prior to the reorganization meeting in late March. Bassing questioned the authority of Planning Director Julia Maki and then Supervisor Rick Worringer to make those calls. “What authority did they have to make those calls?” he asked.

Worringer said he couldn’t remember talking to the attorney on March 18, but noted that Maki had called regarding the security of her planning and zoning files.

Bassing noted that when he had contacted the attorney last fall, relating to the issue of not releasing the comprehensive plan comments, he had been chastised by the board.

Worringer also was unable to remember the reason he had contacted the attorney on March 23, again prior to his being named as chair.

Supervisor Gene Baland noted that he, as the vice-chair, should have been contacting the attorney at that point in time.

“I obviously was out of line,” Worringer said. “I take responsibility for that.”

Supervisor Carmen DeLuca asked for more details on the March bill before approving payment. The board tabled that bill, and will request more information.

Later in the meeting, the board clarified their policies for contacting the township attorney. Only the elected officials are allowed to contact the attorney, and they must first attempt to get the question answered by the attorneys at Minnesota Association of Townships (MAT), which is a free service. If the Planning Director, Chair of the Planning Commission, or Fire Chief have a question for the attorney, they must go through a supervisor, the clerk, or treasurer. Any time a township official does contact the attorney, the results of the discussion would be shared with all members. Though it was noted that supervisors will need to be careful not to violate the Open Meeting Law.

Separation of duties

The board reviewed a letter received from Irene Bright, who had come up to do training with Clerk Drobac and Treasurer Delores Clark on the computerized financial system used by townships called CTAS. Bright spent a day reviewing the laws regarding the specific duties of both the clerk and treasurer, along with best practices for internal controls, as well as training Drobac on the CTAS computer software.

Bright pointed out that the township had not been following the law regarding the separation of duties, and that since Aug. 31, 2015, the former clerk had stopped recording any receipts in CTAS, and the treasurer had assumed those duties.

“At this point you only have the treasurer’s full financial data in CTAS,” Bright wrote. “She prepares all the reports. I am concerned about the checks and balances in your financial work.”

In addition, Bright said the clerk should be preparing the payroll, along with all the other checks, not the treasurer. “One financial officer receives the money,” Bright wrote, “and the other one pays the bills. Do not have one person doing both.”

Bright noted that she had worked with Drobac and Clark to correct the entries, and she was confident the two would work as a team and follow the best practices in the future.

Board members discussed the idea of having a financial audit done, but decided the best course would to be have Bright come back up for another training session in a few months. Bright also did not think an audit was necessary. Township resident Pam Rogers, a CPA, also noted an audit would be very expensive and time-consuming, though she noted it would be good to do an extra review of records starting this year. Rogers noted that the accounting system used by the township has financial controls built in, but that the town board should review who is authorized to allow spending.

Steve Lotz, who is the treasurer for Vermilion Lake Township, also noted that the board members have a responsibility to be overseeing the financial records, and they are the ones who approve the annual board of audit.

Most townships are not required to have an outside audit, and are allowed to self-audit.

Paid on-call

After some serious errors were noticed on the township’s payout to fire department members for “Paid On Call (POC)” time, the board reviewed the existing policy, established in 2010, and decided, on a split vote, to have an outside review conducted on the payouts given over the last two years to help the township establish a better policy for the future. The board also reaffirmed the existing policy and noted it must be followed at this time.

Bassing, who has been looking into this issue, noted that some department members had been reimbursed for more than twice the allowed numbers of trainings/drills per year, and that some department members had claimed POC for time they were already being paid an hourly wage for on-duty events, such as a concert at Fortune Bay, and one instance when a department member was given POC for attending training classes that they had already been certified for.

Paperwork backing up the payment claims to fire department members, which is made on an annual basis, had not been submitted to the township for payments since the policy was first instituted in 2010, Bassing said.

The POC guidelines allowed department members to earn cash payments of $10 for each drill and training meeting attended (up to a limit of 24 per year), along with an additional $20 paid for each emergency call responded to. It also set a requirement that a member have at least 50-percent attendance at drills/meetings to qualify for any reimbursement. Department members also earn an annual pension, which at this time is $1,900 per year. EMS members also can qualify for an additional pension of $1,500 per year. The department holds one regular business meeting and one training meeting each month.

The town board noted there was no intention to make department members pay back any monies that may have been improperly paid.

“We do need to go back and see how long this has been going on,” noted Bassing.

Worringer agreed.

“I’ve only been on the fire department for two years. They stopped following the bylaws and guidelines and were kind of winging it,” he said. “I agree this wasn’t good.”

Worringer did not agree with the need for an outside review.

“I don’t see any benefit,” he said. “I’d just like to start over with a clean slate.”

Milbridge agreed with Worringer. Milbridge is also a new member on the department.

Several in the audience commented, and felt the township did have an obligation to investigate since there had been allegations of misappropriation of township funds.

Worringer did then agree to a limited review.

The vote to hire an accountant to conduct a “limited procedural review” was 3-2 with Baland and Milbridge voting against.

Exactly who and how the POC payments were to be reviewed in the future is yet to be determined. In the past, claims were submitted by fire department officials, Chief Dave Fazio and the fire department secretary Ellen Trancheff, and then prepared for payment approval by the clerk, who was also Ellen Trancheff.

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First of all I appreciate the reporting of this township business. The article above states"The POC guidelines allowed department members to earn cash payments of $10 for each drill and training meeting attended (up to a limit of 24 per year)",

But for the sake of accuracy; the Paid in call program document passed out at Tuesday's board meeting says the following, this is from the handout;

Meetings and Drills (Fire)

A. Meetings consist of the 12 scheduled meetings, in the station, for the benefit of the fire department.

B. There are 12 three hour scheduled drills in the station for the benefit of training. Active participation in the training is required.

C. 50% attendance or 12 of the 24 scheduled meetings and drills and active participation in the drills needs to be met in order for reimbursement from the township for the meetings and drill portion of the paid on call (POC).

This looks like someone is eating more than their fair share of cookies at the taxpayers expense.

Thursday, May 12, 2016
stranger than fiction

The audit of the fire department will most likely find many errors. Once volunteering is turned into a paid on call service, mistakes due to human nature are bound to happen. Many 'volunteer' departments in the state only receive mileage and a 'token' pension. They volunteer to serve. We do not require the following: background checks, physicals, or random drug tests. Not many departments operate with such a lack of 'accountability'. Cleaning house is never a pleasant task, but it is high time that we did.

Friday, May 13, 2016