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State audit chides West Seneca over community center project

Told you so.

That's the reaction from some residents to a state comptroller's report criticizing the West Seneca Town Board for lack of transparency and for not properly planning and managing construction of the library and community center.

Construction of the 30,000-square-foot center, which includes the library, town offices, meeting rooms, recreation space and a Spot Coffee Express Cafe, was bitterly opposed by some, who questioned the cost, as well as how the price jumped from an estimated $9.93 million to $14.93 million, then down to $13.4 million.

"It basically confirms what we have been saying all along," Dan Warren, an organizer of the successful petition drive, said of the audit. "What it says is what prompted the very petitioning that we went through."

After a petition drive gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on borrowing an additional $5.1 million, the Town Board rescinded the borrowing, and bonded for a lesser amount.

Former Supervisor Sheila Meegan said she is proud of the project. She said the scope of the building increased to include more offices after the damage to a recreation building and the Burchfield Nature & Art Center. Meegan said she had not seen the audit.

But the audit said if the board had provided better budget details, taxpayers would have been able to make more informed decisions.

"The board and town officials did not properly plan and manage the capital project and clearly inform taxpayers when the estimated cost and scope of the project changed," the audit concluded.

"Could we have communicated better? Sure," Meegan said. "Even though we did a mailing on it, even though we discussed it, even though there were umpteen opportunities for the public to come and express what they wanted and changes they wanted. It wasn't like we did this in the cover of night."

The board approved the $5.1 million borrowing after the construction had started. That brought the total of the project to $14.93 million. After the petition for a vote on the borrowing was filed, the town temporarily halted all future spending on the building, which was about three months from opening.

Rescinding the $5.1 million borrowing canceled the referendum on the project, angering those who mounted the petition drive. The board decided to borrow a smaller amount, $1.9 million, bringing the maximum cost of the project down to $13.4 million.

Supervisor Gary Dickson, who took office after the center opened, said in his official response to the audit that the board was not provided with updated budget reports to monitor the spending. After the town hired a finance director in October, 2017, the board received detailed budget reports, he said.

The state recommended the Town Board and supervisor keep accurate accounting records, approve an itemized budget and update it, and take board action to be included in official meeting minutes.

Before future capital projects, the town will complete a detailed description and budget, with funding sources identified, that must be approved by the Town Board, Dickson said.

Current Board Member William P. Hanley Jr., who was a member of the board when the building was planned and built, could not be reached to comment. Former board member Gene Hart said he did not want to comment Monday because he had not read the report.

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