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State audit finds problems in Pine Hill Fire District

A Cheektowaga fire district with a history of financial management problems has been blasted again in an audit by the State Comptroller's Office.

Commissioners of the Pine Hill Fire District overpaid for their own travel expenses and violated both the law and the district's code of ethics in giving two commissioners paid district jobs, according to a new report.

One commissioner was appointed master mechanic and paid $8,987 over a two-year period. Another earned $6,600 as an appointed deputy secretary, a post not provided for in town law, the audit said.

The commissioner serving as secretary -- a paid position -- was improperly paid an additional $420.

In addition, the audit found that the commission paid its members more than $8,000 in excessive mileage reimbursement and per diem expenses, at a rate higher than the federal standard, according to the audit.

That includes costs from a February 2010 trip the board took to San Diego, when members more than doubled the standard per diem rate established by the General Service Administration. The board set its rate at $150 per day, when the GSA pegged the rate at $71.

On two trips, including this one, board members also used a district credit card to pay for meals, despite being paid per diem, the report said.

Auditors also used Internet mapping to show board members inflated the number of miles they drove while attending these conferences.

The report did not identify any commissioner by name. But a 2010 commission roster filed with the town lists officers at the time as Mike Skowron, chairman; Michael Braun, commissioner and secretary; and Tracy Kent, Dave Reinhardt and Jeff Speaker, commissioners. Brian Kirst is listed as treasurer.

Last month, in response to the state audit, the board approved a resolution barring any commissioner, chief or assistant chief from holding any other position in the district, except district secretary. Nor can they be compensated for any work they perform, except for the secretary, who receives a salary.

At Tuesday's meeting, commissioners approved three additional changes in policy that were recommended in the audit, including a requirement that supporting documentation be provided for all travel expenses and that the district will use the federally established rates for travel reimbursements.

The board also agreed to use only one of the district's three credit cards for travel-related expenses -- the card assigned to the district treasurer, whose approval would also be required for all purchases.

The board did not approve a motion requiring Skowron, Braun and Kent to repay $16,000 to the district's treasury.

In a letter to the comptroller's office, Donald W. Gill, current district chairman, said the board does not accept several points in the report but agrees "additional controls should be implemented" and "intends to fully implement" the recommendations.

This is not the first time the State Comptroller's Office has found fault with Pine Hill. Some of the same problems were red-flagged in audits conducted in 1993, 1997 and 2000.

The latest audit also found that $17,158 in fire insurance taxes -- paid by out-of-state insurance companies on policies held on in-state properties -- were not properly distributed by the district to the fire company.

District officials told the comptroller's office they were not aware of that requirement before 2006.

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