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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Top Stories > Government

Taxing situation in Bethel

Special audit results

Feb 13, 2020

By Patricio Robayo - staff writer

By: Patricio Robayo | Democrat
The Bethel Town Board revealed the Bethel Tax Office audit at the most recent town board meeting, from the left Councilwoman Dawn Ryder, Councilman Bernie Cohen, Supervisor Dan Sturm, Councilwoman Vicky Simpson, and Councilwoman Lillian Hendrickson.
BETHEL — After finding discrepancies at the Bethel Tax Office, the Town of Bethel ordered a special audit of the office in November 2019, and the findings were finally revealed on February 12, 2020, at Bethel Town Board Meeting.
The board asked Cooper Arias LLC, to review the activities of the tax office from January 1, 2019, to August 30, 2019.
Last year, the then Bethel Tax Collector, Debra Gabriel, had a strained relationship with the town board due to a previous audit that revealed the tax office was unable to reconcile some accounts.
More complaints in 2019 resulted in the town board scheduling a special meeting to discuss the situation publicly at the tax office and calling for an audit.
During that time, Gabriel retired but still wanted to be the Bethel Tax Collector.
Gabriel won the 2019 election to be the 2020 Bethel Tax Collector, but due to the stress from the fighting with certain members of the town board, Gabriel decided not to take the oath.


Summary Report:

First findings

The auditors reviewed tax collections from February 1- February 25, 2019, to see if the proper penalties were collected. The deadline for a taxpayer is January 31; after that, they would incur a penalty.
The auditors analyzed 1,186 payments that were collected during that period, and the audit found, first, 140 of them were assessed the correct penalty.
Second, 614 payments collected were not given a penalty but had supporting documentation that the payment was mailed or processed before February 1, 2019.
Third, 432 payments were not given a penalty and had no supporting documentation that it was mailed or processed before February 1, 2019, resulting in a potential loss of penalties to the town of $6,842.79.

Second Findings

The auditors looked at the taxpayer payments that were made on January 25, 2019, where the taxpayer paid $5,374.88, across eight parcels. However, only seven were credited, according to the report. Because of this, $96.22 was omitted.
According to the report, when the bank deposit was made it was $96.22 more than the amount that was credited to the accounts.
The report stated that the error could have been corrected if the tax collector was preparing the bank reconciliations on a monthly basis. The report noted that they had mentioned the “lack of formal bank reconciliations” has been part of their audit for the past five years.
When the Bethel tax collections were handed over to the Sullivan County Treasurer's Office, the parcel in question reflected nonpayment of $96.22.
According to the report, the Treasurer's Office contacted the taxpayer, and the taxpayer provided proof that they had paid in full. The Town of Bethel, in the end, had to pay that amount to the county.
The report also stated that money was “likely” part of the unaccounted for funds left over in the tax collector's bank account used for tax collection.

Third Findings

The auditors reviewed a tax payment made on January 26, 2019, of $4,335.67. Soon after the taxpayer left the office, the report states the tax collector only counted $3,335.67, meaning $1,000 was now missing.
The tax collector noted the money was missing, according to the report, and said she had contacted the taxpayer.
The town board sent a letter to the tax collector in February, 2019 about the matter and asked it to be resolved, and if she believed the money to be stolen, to report the issue to New York State Police.
The tax collector received a letter from the taxpayer's lawyer soon after, according to the report, stating the taxpayer had paid the amount in full and had documentation to prove it and was seeking legal action.
The report found that the tax collector told the taxpayer's lawyer that she would “honor my word, as I stamped the bill paid.”
On February 14, 2019, the taxpayer's account was credited with the full amount of $4,335.67. However, no bank deposit was made to support that credit during that time.
The report found that it was not until April 2, 2019 that a deposit of $4,335 was made, minus 67 cents.
According to the audit report, when the deposit was made it included $2,735 in cash and a personal check from Gabriel of $1,600.
The report states that the tax collector claimed that she received $3,335.67 in cash, which is $600.67 more than was deposited in cash on April 2, 2019.

Fourth Findings

The bank account used by the tax collector for the sole purpose of tax collection for the Town of Bethel was reviewed after the tax collector left her position.
The report states they found a balance in the account that was made of “numerous small differences,” which included monies carried over from previous years and the current tax year.

Reaction

Bethel Town Supervisor Dan Sturm said, “I want to make clear that the board was totally justified in authorizing this review. The issues are serious, involving the mishandling of taxpayer's dollars in all facets of the tax collector's office over a number of years.”
Councilwoman Vicky Simpson reviewed the findings again at the meeting, saying she was troubled by the third finding, where $1,000 was missing from the collection.
“Whenever there is an allegation of money coming up missing in a public office, it must be investigated and answers must be found,” said Simpson.
“The process that was followed shows once again the lack of attention to basic money handling procedures; this has been a recurring theme in the tax collector's office. Is it any wonder that we asked for a second review of that office? I hope this makes it a little clearer and shows everyone how important it was for us to try to get to the bottom of this,” added Simpson.
Councilwoman Lillian Hendrickson said, “I would like to understand why $1,600 was deposited when only $1,000 was missing. I voted for the audit because I thought I would be clearing her [Gabriel's] name. Evidently, I guess I didn't. I feel very bad about all of this that has happened. I know for years Debbie did a good job in the office. I don't know what happened after that.”
Councilman Bernie Cohen said, “I said this once before, I hate to say it again, you can't play games with other people's money. It's just sad that this whole thing happened.”
Councilwoman Dawn Ryder said she was allowed to review the report before the meeting.
“I did not appreciate the supervisor's comment about my support for Debra for being a personal commitment to Debra. If anyone knows me, they know I stand up for what I feel is right. It was based on the facts before me. This report mostly shows me everything I had before me before we started the audit. I think the actions against her [Gabriel] and the cost associated with this audit, with the result and the attorney hours, has been a waste of the taxpayers' time and funds.”
Sturm said, “I did not give it to Dawn prior [to the meeting] because I was concerned that it would not remain confidential.”
Ryder scoffed at the remark and said, “That is a joke. I am an elected official.”
Sturm responded, “At every turn, in my opinion, you had sided with the tax collector who you are most loyal to, not the taxpayers. There were taxpayers who suffered, and you did not side with them.”
Sturm said before the report was read out loud, that Gabriel held the position of the tax collector for 18 years and has developed many close personal relationships.
“The majority of the board has seen clearly that the interest of the taxpayers must take precedence over any personal loyalties,” added Sturm.
Sturm said the report was forwarded to the New York State Comptroller's Office, and other agencies could get involved.
Sturm added, “In November, a new person will be elected to that office, and with this report in hand, we will work with the new tax collector to make sure the office works the way it is supposed to.”
Gabriel said that the audit did not reveal any new information.
“Dan Sturm and Vicki Vassmer Simpson had their grandstanding for the paper and the residents in attendance; now they are onto their next victim, Dawn Ryder,” said Gabriel.
Gabriel said her family and she will continue to attend meetings and encourage more Bethel voters to do the same. “Be an informed Bethel Voter in 2021,” she said.

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