Wednesday, February 21, 2007

When Fire Districts Hose The Public

Comptroller DiNapoli Looks To Curb Fire District Abuses

Commissioners in cashmere suits -- bought at the taxpayers' expense. Lavish spending sprees. Exotic vacations. Firehouse pub rooms. And a race car next to the ladder truck.

Lack of public oversight, training, accountability, and control all cited as leading to abuses at local firehouses across the State, particularly among Commissioners, who, out of the public eye, spend our money as if it was not only their own, but flowed in abundance out of the fire hydrants.

Now, Tom DiNapoli, the freshly minted State Comptroller, wants to institute new procedures, including mandatory training for Commissioners, to stem abusive fiscal practices.

Newsday reports on the controls the Comptroller seeks to put in place.

Good ideas from Mr. DiNapoli, who has hit State Street running, at least on this issue.

A few questions, though.

Why give Commissioners 270 days after taking office to complete mandatory training courses? The rule should be that Commissioners must complete training either before they assume office, or within, say, 60 days. Let's not give them almost a year to figure out how to do it wrong before we train them how to do it right.

Will all the training in the world keep the unscrupulous Commish from abusing the public trust? The answer to this one is clearly "no." You cannot impose morals any more than you can legislate morality.

That said, with independent oversight, constant review, and established rules in place, no errant Commish, caught with hand in cookie jar, can be heard to complain, "I didn't know that I couldn't do that!"

Lastly, why is it that we, as residents and taxpayers, haven't demonstrated more outrage -- or at least outward concern -- over the fiscal abuses of our Fire Districts, Water Districts, and, dare we say, Sanitation Districts?

We didn't realize that there was an accepted level of tolerance for fleecing the public.

Our thanks to Tom DiNapoli for picking up the hose and trying to extinguish the fires.
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Click HERE to see the proposed rules and to offer comment.
Putting out the fire

New comptroller's first oversight proposal targets fire districts, requires extended training, budget review

By Deborah S. Morris

New State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli yesterday made an issue of sweeping significance on Long Island - the conduct of fire districts and fire companies - the subject of his first major oversight proposals.

The former Nassau County assemblyman, tapped recently by state lawmakers for the new job, credited earlier work by his office in proposing new regulations setting training requirements for fire district commissioners.

"It certainly is an important issue and one that this office has been working on for a period of time," DiNapoli said yesterday, also citing work by Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) to pass fire district oversight legislation last summer. "We didn't want to hold up an important initiative any longer. This will really help local officials to do the job the right way with integrity and expertise."

Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College, noted that DiNapoli, who was tapped for the job over the objections of Gov. Eliot Spitzer, picked an issue that has had its fair share of news coverage.

"Clearly one would have expected, considering the controversy surrounding him when he got the job, that he would have come up with something more to establish his name, not something that had been done already," Muzzio said. "But it's a small step. He knows he has four years to get established."

DiNapoli's regulations would require that within 270 days of taking office, all fire district commissioners get at least six hours of training in such issues as fire district management, travel procedures and policies, internal controls, fraud and abuse detection, conflicts of interest and ethics.

Districts would be required to hold annual budget hearings, adopt a code of ethics and comply with new requirements for establishing capital reserve funds and for paying travel expenses for district personnel.

"The training requirement will fundamentally reform how these entities operate and will ensure better management of public funds," DiNapoli said.

"Besides the auditing function, this office also wants to play a role as a guide dog, so they can do right by the taxpayers."

Giovanni Graceffa, chairman of the Syosset fire commissioners board, said the new training schedule will serve as protection in the long run.

"There's got to be some kind of understanding, a standard, where we are held accountable," Graceffa said. "

At the end of the day after training I can't use the line, 'I didn't know.' If the state thinks we need more training, we are behind them 100 percent." The particulars of the training still must be worked out. The public will have 45 days to comment on the proposed regulations, state officials said.

Although for years commissioners have been trained through seminars and conferences, the proposed regulations are more structured.

"We all have to be held accountable for our actions with what we do within our fire districts," said Billy Theis, a Terryville commissioner. "Fire commissioners work very hard for their districts and more training would be a benefit."

Charles Smith, a commissioner in Bay Shore, said he welcomes the training, but that everything must be spelled out.

"The state needs to be more specific in their laws and guidelines of what they expect of us," he said. "If you give it to two lawyers, each reads it a different way. That's not right."


State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said yesterday past audits by the comptroller's office uncovered "troubling details... regarding unchecked spending."Among expenditures uncovered by Newsday in the past are deluxe hotel accommodations at conferences, extravagant recreation rooms in firehouses, race cars, hand-tailored cashmere suits and custom shirts, and non-itemized meal expenses.

Extinguishing financial excess

Regulations proposed by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli to strengthen oversight of fire districts and fire companies in New York State call for:

All fire district commissioners must get at least six hours of training on their responsibilities within 270 days of taking office.

Training course content must include information on fire district management, travel procedures and policies, procurement and disposition of fire district assets, internal controls, detection of fraud and abuse, conflicts of interest and ethics.

Fire districts must hold annual budget hearings, adopt a code of ethics, and comply with new requirements for establishing capital reserve funds and for paying travel expenses.

Fire districts with revenue of more than $200,000 also will be required to obtain an annual independent audit through a competitive process and limit the audit contract to five years.

The Office of the State Comptroller will host a live teleconference on March 8 on understanding the new requirements. The training runs from 6:30 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

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