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Audits of Brighton Fire District find lapses in financial oversight 

click to enlarge The Brighton Fire Department on the corner of East Avenue and Route 441.

PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA

The Brighton Fire Department on the corner of East Avenue and Route 441.

A pair of state audits of the Brighton Fire District found lapses in financial oversight and poor record-keeping, especially concerning the procurement of goods and services.

Auditors did not identify any deliberate or overt misuse of public funds, but discovered that fire officials did not always seek competitive bids when contracting for professional services and neglected at times to maintain documentation for those purchases.

In its responses to the audits, the district challenged some of the findings, but also indicated that corrective actions have been taken and will continue to be put in place through the course of the year.

The audits, which were routine and part of the state Comptroller’s Office scheduled reviews of local governments, were released in late April and examined financial records from 2019.

In one audit that focused on board oversight of financial operations in the Brighton Fire Department, a nonprofit organization that supports the fire district's mission, the auditors found that the board “did not provide adequate oversight” by neglecting to enforce compliance with bylaws and policy and provide members with an annual report on financial information that is required by law.

“The treasurer reported at only two of 24 meetings in 2019 that ‘bills were paid as approved,’” the audit read. “Without detailed disbursement information and interim financial reports during the year, the board or membership cannot ensure disbursements do not exceed approved limits.”

Auditors examined 220 disbursements totaling $546,000 and found that 70 percent of them did not have documented approval and 42 percent of them lacked adequate documentation. The records sometimes included additional information about the purposes of the purchases, such as recruitment advertising and banquets, but auditors wrote that without proper documentation of their approval “many department disbursements were for products and services that could be considered personal or questionable.”

The purchases included alcohol and food for holiday parties and social events, gift cards for door prizes, and tickets to minor league baseball games.

“While these expenditures appeared reasonable for various department events, we were unable to verify that all purchases were for appropriate department purposes,” the audit read.

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Fire districts are autonomous units of local government, independent of the towns and rural communities they serve. Outside the city limits of Rochester, fire districts are how most communities get fire services.

Districts are run by a board of five commissioners, each elected to serve either two- or five-year terms, that is authorized by state law to levy taxes and set budgets to pay for fire protection.

In the other audit, which focused on non-payroll disbursements of the fire district, auditors found that more than half of the $1.1 million in payouts they reviewed lacked adequate documentation that either competitive bids or quotes were obtained or not required.

Specifically, auditors raised a red flag over a $500,000 deposit on a new rescue truck. They found that the district’s attorney was concerned that the method the district intended to use to buy the truck might not fully comply with state bidding statutes, but that those concerns were not relayed to the district’s board of commissioners who ultimately approved the purchase.

The findings were not particularly unusual. In the last five years, the Comptroller’s Office has audited more than 130 fire districts, and flagged most of them for having inadequate controls over all matters of finances, from credit card use to purchasing and safeguarding assets.

RELATED: Audit dings Sea Breeze Fire District for shoddy recordkeeping

In written responses to the audits, Brighton Fire District officials wrote that they have updated their internal financial policies to ensure regular independent reviews of banks statements and other records and a presentation of annual reports to the board of commissioners, among other corrective actions.

“The district commissioners have always taken, and will continue to take seriously, their volunteer responsibility with respect to the fiduciary duties to which they agreed,” wrote Richard Garrett Jr., the chairperson of the district. “Our goal is to protect the public’s trust, as well as their lives and property, and we will continue to do so as we have in the past.”

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.
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