Taking town animal shelter to task

County comptroller cites safety, fiscal procedures

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Capping a three-year-long, on-again, off-again effort by his department, Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman released a limited audit of the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter in Wantagh last week that detailed longstanding allegations of fiscal irregularities and animal endangerment.

The report detailed 56 specific complaints of misuse of funds, allegations of improper vendor contracts and no-show jobs. Most serious for an agency of its type were more than a dozen allegations of mistreatment of animals in the shelter’s care, including unnecessary killings. The complaints also included allegations of cover-ups of animal mistreatment using political connections.

Auditors were hampered in their efforts by a 2017 State Supreme Court ruling that limited the comptroller’s investigation of the agency to purely fiscal matters, after Schnirman’s predecessor, George Maragos, announced a sweeping inquiry into the shelter’s programs and operations in late 2017. Maragos was a candidate in that year’s county executive election.

The town imposed further constraints when the audit was restarted in 2018 at the behest of newly elected Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, Schnirman wrote. Citing the court ruling, the town blocked access to organizational charts and personnel records, and prevented auditors from carrying out unsupervised site visits or financial stress testing of the agency’s records. Such access is considered normative for audits under generally accepted accounting practices.

“Independent investigations are crucial for government to be held accountable,” Schnirman said at a June 4 news conference detailing his findings. “It is our hope that town officials will review this lack of transparency, as it will prevent them from enacting real reform.”

Despite the limited nature of the investigation, auditors found a pattern of improper tracking of taxpayer donations, overspending on personnel and a lack of transparency, including in charitable programs like Tails of Hope.

Auditors were unable to verify whether vendor payments totaling $2.2 million were consistent with contractual terms, due to a lack of proper documentation, according to the report. They found “no real accounting of how donated money was spent, compared to tax dollars,” Schnirman said, because the agency failed to conduct variance analyses. And because separate accounts were not maintained for individual programs, he said, “Our auditors had to create a ledger from scratch to see how donated money was moving around.”

Under the terms of the court order, the comptroller was also prevented from determining how more than $3 million in personnel costs were allocated each year from 2015 to 2017. Those costs accounted for more than 80 percent of the agency’s budget during that period, auditors found.

Schnirman’s findings pointed to irregularities in the shelter’s payroll procedures, including inconsistencies in the use of biometric hand scans in recording employees’ hours. “Even with that technology, timesheet work was being done by hand,” Schnirman said. Thus, it was unclear whether employees were properly compensated for breaks and overtime in accordance with collective bargaining agreements.

The shelter has been the target of complaints and protests for at least a decade, including an investigation into financial improprieties by then Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, begun in 2010. Rice, who is now a member of Congress, also called for State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to conduct a state audit in 2012 of the then $7.1 million agency, which raised many of the same issues as the county audit.

In late 2017, Maragos sent an engagement letter to the Beltagh Avenue facility in the face of continuing complaints, lawsuits and allegations of animal mistreatment, unsanitary conditions, unqualified staff and unnecessary deaths there. Then Town Supervisor Anthony Santino filed suit in State Supreme Court, contending that the county comptroller did not have standing to undertake such an audit. Justice Roy Mahon concurred in part, directing that the inquiry be limited “to a fiscal examination … of the Animal Shelter’s balance sheets/budget evidencing its income and expenditure.”

A new engagement letter was sent in February 2018, at Gillen’s request.

Schnirman’s most significant recommendations included the initiation of an immediate, comprehensive, operational audit by qualified animal shelter experts of all matters relating to the care of animals, staffing and purchasing. “We’re not veterinarians,” Deputy Comptroller Kim Brandeau said in emphasizing the need for such expert review.

The shelter exceeded its combined budgets for 2015 through 2017 by a total of roughly $1 million, Schnirman’s team found. Accordingly, he recommended, the agency should carry out a variance analysis to determine where its expenditures are not in line with its approved budget. The shelter should regularize all purchasing and payroll procedures, and adopting standardized procedures for fees and waivers, and the town should adhere to its collective bargaining agreement.

The town’s response to the report was positive, Schnirman said. Town Comptroller Kevin Conroy thanked Schnirman, writing that the limited audit “provides us with the opportunity to take a broader look at our processes town wide and to make changes which will strengthen our system of internal controls.”

Efforts to reach Animal Shelter Director Michael Pastore were unsuccessful at press time.