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Sunday, December 11, 2022

Following the Charlestown money trail

And cleaning up the CCA’s mess

By Will Collette

The CCA's approach: deny, deny, deny
Our new Town Council has been duly sworn in and faces the major challenge of cleaning up Charlestown’s money messes. 

A lot has changed since the $3 million “oopsie” was revealed (the misplacement of $3 million and subsequent budget problems that created) and a newly revealed mess regarding the way town management has been calculating the payroll.

We have a new Council majority and only one surviving CCA Council member – retired attorney Susan Cooper who by interesting coincidence was the Council “liaison” to the Budget Commission where she was supposed to perform oversight for the Council.

Unfortunately, the Budget Commission is still headed by Dick Sartor, a former Charlestown Town Administrator, whose main talent appears to be keeping a lid on embarrassing problems. We still have Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz who has also played a central role in both the “Oopsie” and the new staff payroll controversy.

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) and their faithful manservant Stankiewicz hate it when anyone challenges the way they handled Charlestown taxpayers’ money.  

They address such challenges in two ways. First, they talk about Charlestown’s low tax rate while skimming over the fact that actual Charlestown tax collections have increased every year they held power largely due to the town’s Über-gentrification that has driven up tax assessments. 

Second, they attack the challenger, particularly Steve Hoff whose critiques have frequently been published in Progressive Charlestown. For some prime examples of Steve’s detailed professional analytical work, click HERE and HERE and HERE. 

One such attack was a ghost-written November 27 letter to the Westerly Sun that ran over the name of ex-CCA Town Council member Bonnita Van Slyke. She was listed as a Charlestown resident even though she closed on the sale of her waterfront Arnolda estate for $2 million on November 16.  

Steve Hoff had testified at the Town Council meeting on November 14 before Van Slyke left for parts unknown. He had found an error in the way Charlestown management had been paying its salaried employees caused by using the wrong number of days in a fiscal year to calculate their pay checks.  This resulted in overpayments to employees over a multi-year period. 

The Town uses 260 days as its standard number of workdays per year. However, that number is true in only 30% of the years while in 70% of the years, the number of workdays is 261 or 262 days. 

Charlestown pays staff every two weeks using an incorrect pay rate. Because they use the wrong number of days in most years, salaried employees get paid for one or two days more than allowed under their Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) or contracts. 

This cost is not included in the voter approved budgets. As the Van Slyke letter adamantly insists, “staff get paid for the hours they work” as they should, I might add, but in Charlestown, they get a little extra. 

When you pay more than what is budgeted, it not only affects wages, but all costs related to wages such as longevity, and the employer contributions to Social Security FICA, Medicare, the town pension, unemployment insurance and temporary disability insurance. 

That adds thousands more in taxpayers’ costs from this latest uncovered “oopsie” which is estimated to be at least $200,000 in overpayments to employees.  

This mismatch in days budgeted becomes a budget liability that accumulates and eventually must be addressed by an “adjustment” to correct the error, as was done earlier this year. It’s a sloppy practice. I will admit doing this when I discover my checkbook balance is out of whack and I can’t find the error. I do an “adjustment” and it’s all better. Or at least I can pretend it is. 

When I do it, it’s just a harmless entry on Quicken. When the town does it, it’s actual money out of the taxpayers’ pockets.   

The solution to this problem is ridiculously easy. The easiest, not to mention most logical, would be to simply count the actual number of workdays before the start of each fiscal year and divide the employee’s salary by the actual number of workdays.

The other simple solution would be to switch from paying every two weeks to paying twice a month, like the 1st and the 15th and divide the employee’s salary by the 24 payroll checks issued annually. 

It’s not rocket science, nor does it require some onerous effort. To do a payroll properly, you must constantly adjust for changes in salary, tax rates, insurance co-pays, dependents, etc. Why not simply annually adjust the number of workdays to reflect reality and stop overpaying Town employees with our tax dollars? 

Either method would make it easy to ensure each salaried worker gets exactly what their contract or collective bargaining agreement requires.

As a trade unionist, I staunchly support workers’ right to fair pay. I oppose making town staff pay back roughly $200,000 in overpayments caused by sloppy town financial management at the highest level. They did not contribute to causing this error and, in most cases, probably never noticed it. 

But going forward, I hope the new Council majority will insist on better management. 

The CCA runs on the principle that it never makes mistakes. Stankiewicz, good servant that he is, is also covered by the “never admit, never apologize, always attack” policy. Thus, they never take responsibility, nor do they ever promise to do better. 

Stankiewicz publicly attacked Steve Hoff after his testimony, not on the merits of his comments, but by claiming that (a) Steve is not a CPA and (b) none of Steve’s complaints, either about financial management or town open records policy, had any merit.  

Untrue on all counts. In fact, if Stankiewicz had spent ten minutes on-line, he would have found one of Steve’s CPA credentials at Connecticut’s licensing database

His other CPA credential is with the State of New Hampshire Certificate #1918 issued on November 19, 1990.  He also has a Master’s Degree in Business Administration with a major in Finance awarded by the University of Washington in Seattle on March 18, 1977.  

Here's the Connecticut license:

You can also click HERE to see Steve’s MBA diploma and HERE to see his New Hampshire credentials.

Steve retired and moved to Charlestown in 2008. Neither his retirement nor move to town changes the fact that he is a CPA.  

As for Stankiewicz’s charge that all of Steve’s complaints to the state have fallen on deaf ears, check out this letter from the state’s Auditor General Dennis Hoyle (CLICK HERE). 

Auditor General Hoyle leads off by acknowledging that Charlestown “misclassified” $3 million and said he had already reached out to the town telling them to correct it. He also agreed to several additional concerns Steve raised.  

In every appeal to the state Attorney General over Stankiewicz’s draconian records access policy, the AG’s Open Government officer has chastised Charlestown for looking for loopholes to prevent public access rather than following a more open policy. On several specific issues, the AG’s office ruled in Steve’s favor. 

To get additional information, Steve has paid the town $330.99 to get such key public records as the town’s General Ledgers. That paid off when he found the payroll irregularity that has gotten so deeply under the CCA’s and Stankiewicz's skin. Click HERE to see the General Ledger for fiscal year 2021.

I understand the appeal in attacking the messenger when you don’t like the message. After all, I pointed out at the start of this article that Bonnie’s CCA rebuttal letter was printed 11 days after Van Slyke sold her Charlestown house.

But it’s more important to focus on the substance and back up your arguments with evidence.