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Pine Hill needs better oversight; Fire district's commissioners failed to follow proper financial procedures

By all accounts, steps are being taken to improve financial oversight in the Pine Hill Fire District, and that's good. Too bad the action is being taken only following a bruising audit by the State Comptroller's Office.

The recent audit found that commissioners of the Pine Hill Fire District in Cheektowaga 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.

And the pay wasn't bad for jobs they shouldn't have been given in the first place. One commissioner, appointed master mechanic, was paid$8,987 over a two-year period. Another earned $6,600 as an appointed deputy secretary. Only one problem: The position is not provided for in town law.

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

Common sense apparently played no role in the decisions made by those who chose to ring up bills on trips to places like San Diego and charge taxpayers for the expense. On two trips, board members used a district credit card to pay for meals despite also collecting per-diem payments, according to the report.

As reported by The News, the report did not identify any commissioners by name, but last year's 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.

We could cut the commissiones some slack if this was the first negative audit. But there have been earlier problems dating back to 1993, 1997 and 2000.

Although Donald W. Gill, current district chairman, said that the board does not accept several points in the report, there is obviously a problem. Gill hopefully continues that the board agrees "that additional controls should be implemented to further ensure the appropriate management of the fire district's finances."

Commissioners have 90 days to file a plan of corrective action, and have indicated they would be doing so. In fact, as a start, last month the board approved a resolution barring any commissioner, chief or assistant chief from holding any other position in the district—except district secretary. And they cannot be compensated for any work they perform, except the district secretary, who receives a salary.

The audit did not criticize the brave firefighters in the department, who volunteer their time to provide a vital service to their community. The Comptroller's Office dealt with the actions of the commissioners. The office found that their actions did not rise to the level of criminality, but it was unconscionable.