COWnting Change

May 28, 2014

During a recent Town COWncil meeting, a routine discussion of the Town’s budget turned rather disturbing. The Town takes deposits from COWs who apply for permits to cover projected staff costs. Money actually spent by Town staff is to be kept by the Town but excess funds are supposed to be returned to the Applicant. In recent years, the COWncil and staff have increased fees in order to recover more of the actual costs incurred by Town staff. It is reasonable to charge Applicants for the staff cost since otherwise the cost is paid by the taxpayers. However, this type of cost recovery is only fair if there is proper accounting.

It is upsetting to learn that the Town has kept hundreds of thousands of dollars for years after projects were completed, and are now going to attempt to guess at what the Town “should have” charged years ago! The Town’s deposit fund right now is $1,430,327, with only one third of the deposits having been collected in the past three years. One third of deposits are four to seven years old. And an amazing one third of the deposits are more than EIGHT YEARS OLD.

We learned from the financial report that Town staff, in the last two years, “has made an additional effort to charge appropriate staff time to these deposits” and claims that staff has also made the effort to “return the remaining money to depositors for projects that are incomplete or inactive.” Staff has charged more than $250,000 to projects and returned almost $300,000 in the past two years.

We are cow-nfounded !!! On what basis is the staff deciding what to charge and what to return? How can the staff possibly have accurate records for projects that are eight years old, if the money wasn’t accounted for properly all this time? COWncil member Peter Mason reasonably asked, “If we don’t know what was charged, why don’t we return” the money? Town Manager Kevin Bryant replied that some old projects never got charged, but that the Town Geologist Bob Wright always charged – to which Peter slipped in a quick question, “Overcharged?”

COWncil member Tom Shanahan asked, “How did the auditor let this crap go for eight years?” He suggested that anything older than two years be audited. The Town staff wants to actually hire a summer intern to “address” the deposits that are older than four years. Just how is the intern going to do this if proper records were not kept.

Former Town Manager Susan George was blasted by Mayor Dave Burow for allowing things to deteriorate to this state. But the COWncil members should have questioned this years ago.

COWncil member Shanahan even made the OUTRAGEOUS suggestion that he would be “happy to keep the money” if people don’t ask about it, and then “close” the accounts. Apparently COWs need to inquire about their money proactively or else the Town might just keep it permanently. Moreover, the Town has been earning on interest on these deposits. Some interest should be paid to COWs whose unused deposits have been retained for long periods of time after the application was no longer pending.

It is not cow-nceiveable that the Town can accurately divine how much it should have charged close to a decade ago. Any funds not attached to a current project should be immediately returned to the applicant with apologies.

We herd no suggestion on how to prevent this travesty from happening again. Staff should bill time in recorded increments as many of us in the private sector do. And the Applicant of every approved, denied or withdrawn application should receive a full detailed accounting within a set period of time.

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