Responsibility Gulf In Town Government

The buck, apparently, stops with no one

    The truth about the debacle that emerged recently concerning the East Hampton Town tax receiver’s office is that the buck, apparently, stops with no one. This responsibility gulf presents a most compelling argument for creating the new post of town manager with strong oversight capability.

    For the second year in a row, many town property owners did not receive end-of-year tax bills. In 2012, when the problem first came to light and residents started asking questions, the error was ascribed to an outside firm that had mislaid a tray of envelopes. This time around, no one in Town Hall noticed anything was amiss until taxpayers again started complaining. But it gets far worse. More than 5,000 bills were not printed at all, and tax payment checks went unopened in piles. One, in a FedEx envelope from a mortgage clearinghouse, was for $3.8 million.

    As it turns out there were other problems in what is arguably the second most important town department after the police. An internal assessment done by a town auditor, Charlene Kagel, in October, identified several additional problems, including data-entry delays, at least one taxpayer winding up with an account overdraft due to the office’s being late making deposits, and a bizarre practice of allowing some property owners to leave signed, blank checks in the tax receiver’s office to be filled out by staff when the bills were due.

    Unfortunately, the auditor’s report was discussed in the fall in a town board meeting that was illegally closed to the public and during which no records were made. By way of explanation, Ms. Kagel said recently that the executive session was justified because the discussion would have included details about specific town employees. This was an overreach; any talk of individuals could have been segmented from consideration of the tax receiver’s office’s overall failings.

    More plausibly, we suspect that the previous town administration sought to conceal the fact that the problems had been allowed to persist despite earlier warning signs. Had the report been in the open, much frustration and unknown expense could have been avoided. 

    Several people have questioned whether Len Bernard, the town budget officer and the putative head of the Finance Division, within which the tax receiver’s office operates, deserves some of the blame. This is a good question. Ms. Kagel, who identified the problems in the fall, works directly with  Mr. Bernard, and it is unlikely that he could not have known about her observations. Moreover, as problems had already been identified in 2012, it would have been reasonable to expect him to stay on top of what was going on.

    Which brings a town manager to mind. Had there been one, he or she might have helped avert the tax bill disaster in two ways. First, a manager would undoubtedly have had access to the auditor’s report and the authority to see that timely action was taken. And such a person, with no alliance to a political party in the ideal, might also have forced the issue into the light of day before problems had grown so large.