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Pellet audit is critical of Amherst

Amherst officials failed to protect taxpayers' interests when they hired a consultant to oversee the town's sewage plant and its controversial pellet project, state auditors say in a preliminary report.

The report, delivered to town officials this week during audit "exit conferences" with state auditors and obtained Thursday by The Buffalo News, also raps Amherst officials for failing to follow sound business practices in dealing with the consultant, Micro-Link.

"The contract is severely weighted in favor of Micro-Link, and there can be little doubt that a reasonable person should have recognized that this contract would result in unnecessary costs to taxpayers," the report says.

The audit -- which was limited to the period between January 2004 and June 2005 -- spends little time on the pellet program's early controversies, including the town's suspension of plant superintendent Anthony Canna, who repeatedly criticized the pellet program.

Auditors also appeared to accept the arguments by town engineers that Amherst benefits economically by making the pellets, which cost less to landfill than other forms of treated sludge.

However, they said higher prices for natural gas, which is used to dry the pellets, or landfill tipping fees could wipe out any future advantage to the town.

And the audit concludes that the town's recent attempts to bag and sell the pellets is not good business, saying: "Town officials should discontinue the pellet bagging operation." The findings will not become official until town officials have an opportunity to respond to them in writing. Outgoing Supervisor Susan J. Grelick, a supporter of the pellet making project, is expected to write the town's response.

Without naming them, the report singles out a former town attorney and others for their acceptance of the Micro-Link contract.

"Town officials, including the Town Board, the town attorney and the Engineering Department, did not follow sound business practices and failed to protect the interests of taxpayers when they entered into the agreement with Micro-Link to operate [Sewer Plant 16]," auditors said.

Town Attorney E. Thomas Jones, who was not in that post when the events took place, declined to comment, saying the audit is not yet final.

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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