Bethel tax collector audit unveiled

By FRITZ MAYER
Posted 2/19/20

WHITE LAKE, NY — A limited audit of the Town of Bethel tax collector’s office was unveiled at a town meeting on February 13. The audit concerned the practices of Debra Gabriel, who had …

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Bethel tax collector audit unveiled

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WHITE LAKE, NY — A limited audit of the Town of Bethel tax collector’s office was unveiled at a town meeting on February 13. The audit concerned the practices of Debra Gabriel, who had been the tax collector for 18 years. During 2019, Gabriel’s relationship with most of the members of the town board and supervisor Dan Sturm became strained.

In September 2019, Gabriel announced that she was retiring from the position, she was elected to the position again but resigned the night before she was due to begin her duties again.

As Sturm prepared to read the entire report to the meeting, he said, “Debra Gabriel was the Bethel Tax Collector for 18 years, and she developed many close personal relationships. However, a majority of the board has seen clearly that the interests of the taxpayers must take precedence over any personal loyalties.”

He added that problems in the office dated back to previous years. “Over several years, town audits had noted serious deficiencies in the tax collector’s office. Proper procedures for the handling of cash, the documentation of deposits, reconciliation of payments and other recommended practices were not followed.”

The audit, conducted by Cooper Arias, LLP, found many shortcomings about the way Gabriel carried out her duties. For instance, when tax payments come in by mail, the envelopes are supposed to be retained. Out of 1,186 payments received, 432 of the envelopes were not retained. Board member Vicky Simpson said, “This is important because retaining these envelopes is a key to assessing whether or not penalties should be applied.”

Another finding of the audit was that Gabriel failed to reconcile her office’s bank account as often as she should have. “To put it simply, the tax collector was not balancing her checkbook on a regular basis. Does anyone think this is appropriate for an office with such responsibilities for public funds?” asked Simpson.

There were a few specific complaints from taxpayers and the way their cases were handled.

In January 2019, Gabriel received a cash payment from one property owner of more than $5,000 and gave the property owner a receipt for the same. Gabriel, however, came to see that the cash payment was short by $1,000. Gabriel contacted the taxpayer and spoke with the taxpayer’s attorney. She then determined that she was going to make up the shortfall with her own funds, which turned out to be $1,600.

“There’s still no way to verify what exactly happened, why the money was missing, how the amounts changed, or why she felt that she had to make it up out of her own funds,” Simpson said.

Four of the board members were satisfied with the audit and believed it was necessary to authorize it. Board member Dawn Ryder did not agree, saying that she learned nothing new from the audit report. “This report that you read mostly shows me everything that I had before me before we started the audit,” she said to Sturm.

“This report has been sent to the New York State Comptroller’s Office for their review. It may ultimately be the case that, given the seriousness of these findings, other agencies may be asked to review it as well,” said Sturm.

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