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Nov 20, 2013 11:49 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Bridgehampton Fire District Deposes Its Financial Manager, Hires Attorneys To Oversee Finances

Nov 20, 2013 3:42 PM

The commissioners of the Bridgehampton Fire District plan to strip the district’s longtime manager of much of his authority, and salary, in what they say is a move to improve the transparency and efficiency of the district’s financial management.

The district has hired an upstate legal firm that specializes in fire and EMS department oversight to handle the district’s financial management going forward, replacing Fire District Secretary/Treasurer Charles Butler. That firm has already begun a forensic examination of the district’s bookkeeping and says it has found a number of expenditures that suggest more oversight was needed.

In a letter to district residents, published as an ad in The Southampton Press, the five Bridgehampton Fire District commissioners said they have been unhappy with the level of accountability and transparency in the district’s financial management for some time and have chosen to turn to a professional legal and financial management team to administrate the district’s bank accounts, policy guidelines and track its use of its $1.6 million annual budget.

As part of the move, the commissioners plan to abolish the department’s appointed and salaried secretary position, held for more than 30 years by Mr. Butler, at the end of the year. In addition, the commissioners say, they will slash the salary for Mr. Butler’s elected position of district treasurer. He was most recently elected to the treasurer’s post in 2011 to a three-year term and earned a total of $60,000, plus benefits, for the two posts.

Mr. Butler could not be reached for comment by phone or at the district’s offices at the Bridgehampton Fire Department headquarters.

Since beginning to work with the district last month, the Pinsky Law Group said this week, a number of financial transactions have been discovered in district records that raised concerns, a point alluded to in the district’s letter to residents.

“We have found a number of expenditures which we are questioning the propriety of,” said Brad Pinsky, head of the Pinsky Law Group, a Syracuse-based firm that represents more than 500 fire districts and fire departments statewide. “We make no accusations. Some of them are instances where we found checks that were written that did have vouchers attached which would appear not to have been approved by the commissioners. In the future, every expenditure will be closely monitored and fully approved by the commissioners.”

District Board of Commissioners Chairman Steve Halsey said that the board has been criticized for having fired Mr. Butler; he said that hasn’t taken place yet, although he acknowledged that Mr. Butler’s secretary position, much of his $60,000 salary and his approximately $20,000 a year in benefits will be eliminated at the end of next month. Mr. Butler will continue receiving an approximately $1,500 annual stipend for his role as the district treasurer. He will be up for reelection in December of next year.

“Everybody is saying that Charlie is fired—he is not fired and he is still getting paid,” Mr. Halsey said. “The rest of it is next year.”

Pinsky Law Group will be paid a flat management fee of $60,000 a year, according to Mr. Pinsky. He noted that employing his firm will save the district on the costs of hiring a bank reconciliation and payroll company, as the district has done in the past.

Commissioner Dean Foster said that the shift in management and oversight, from his standpoint, was primarily driven by a desire among the commissioners to modernize the overall management of the department and that detailed oversight of the district’s bookkeeping was an integral component of that.

“The fire department has been run in something of a good-old-boy manner for many years,” Mr. Foster said this week. “In today’s world, that has to change. It has to be more closely managed. We’ve been lax on a lot of things, keeping up with state policies and new codes, and those are things the new lawyer is going to make sure we’re up on.”

Mr. Halsey, who has been chairman for 10 years, and whose term of office is up in December, said that as part of the overhaul, the commissioners would be required to play a more active role in the oversight of the district’s management than they have in the past. “We’re just trying to keep up with the times,” he said of the changes in management. “The commissioners are going to be much more hands-on. In the past, we would approve the vouchers but we rarely saw bank statements. We could ask to see them, but they weren’t readily available. That all has to change.”

Two former commissioners said this week that the past oversight did not lack for any ability to examine the financial records and track spending—only the will for it.

“I wouldn’t have been on that board if I wasn’t comfortable that those finances were being conducted 100-percent aboveboard,” former commissioner John Muse said. “Any inquiry I ever made was always met, 100 percent.”

Another former commissioner, Jeff Louchheim, also staunchly disagreed with the characterization of the district’s bookkeeping being shielded from the commissioners. “All the financial records were provided or available in a second’s notice,” he said. “When I was a commissioner, the reconciliations were provided for anyone to look at, at every meeting. We would see every check and every account balance. And if anybody at any time wanted to get a look at the books, they could get it.

“Not to mention,” he added, “every commissioner has the key to Charlie’s office.”

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Isn't the Fire District audited every year? The notion of impropriety seems unlikely.
By C Law (354), Water Mill on Nov 20, 13 12:38 PM
There is a gray area. You can have expenditures that meet an audit requirement but may not have been the intent of the district. The short of it is, a finance person should pay a reasonable business expense if it is signed by the user and one authority level up. The auditors seeing both those signatures would likely not flag an item as an audit finding,

I have not done the books of a fire district but I'd think overall they are pretty simple: salary, OT, PP&E, training, travel, cell ...more
By Hambone (514), New York on Nov 20, 13 1:50 PM
The district doesn't do fund raising.
By C Law (354), Water Mill on Nov 20, 13 2:59 PM
Thank you
By Hambone (514), New York on Nov 21, 13 9:16 AM
I should have read the letter before commenting! Sounds like something was amiss? BTW having a Board approve every expenditure is a bit draconian. You can authorize spending limits to facilitate day to day existence but cap the dollar amounts! You can review the at month's end after the fact. Big expenses should ALWAYS have a double signature. I'd bet the other fatal error they made was the guy collecting the money was the guy approving the expense who was also the same guy who cut the check. ...more
By Hambone (514), New York on Nov 20, 13 1:56 PM
re Dean "good old boys manner for many years" excuse me but wasn't your father a commissioner for many of the "good old boys manner for many years"? and didn't you quit the FD and then ran for commissioner after your "good old boy father" didn't run??? why are the taxpayers paying for a "message to the taxpayers" paid by the BHFDistrict? Need to justify your actions?? The sniff test doeswn't begin to come into play here IT STINCKS!!
By xtiego (698), bridgehampton on Nov 20, 13 6:30 PM
2 members liked this comment
A volunteer FD not being transparent? Say its not so! Lol

By chief1 (2800), southampton on Nov 20, 13 6:57 PM
no mention of Barbara Roesel brought in about 8 months ago to "help" Charlie. Didn't she grow up in the house next door to Steve Halsey? Yes she did. Look further.
By xtiego (698), bridgehampton on Nov 20, 13 7:28 PM
1 member liked this comment
Charlie Butler is one of the most honest, intelligent and trustworthy men that I have ever met. He would do anything for this community and has always been a man of great integrity. I sincerely hope that the Bridgehampton fire department acknowledges his contributions over the past 30. It is sad that in this day and age that we have to contract out services to organizations that have no association with the community when you have competent locals who give everything they have to their jobs for ...more
By jhand6847@aol.com (12), East Hampton on Nov 22, 13 1:45 PM
2 members liked this comment
Charlie has great roots in the community, putting out the flags all year, planting the flower boxes on Main Street and then watering the flowers all spring and summer. Not to mention his long and dedicated service to the Fire District which has long gone unappreciated. So sorry for Charlie since in the past few year he has lost his youger son, had his house burn to the ground and now is dealing with the fire commissioners who are implying "wrongdoing" but not stating any facts. Charlie you are ...more
By xtiego (698), bridgehampton on Nov 22, 13 5:56 PM
1 member liked this comment
This is all starting to sound like a political showdown. As an eye looking from the outside in, it sounds like we are dealing with party politics. Isn't this a community organization??
By jhand6847@aol.com (12), East Hampton on Nov 28, 13 5:42 PM