Audit: Village of the Branch may have made 'poor business decision'

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The Village of the Branch hired an independent contractor to inspect buildings and allowed him to collect more than $70,000 in fees, going against standard practice, according to a state audit released this week.

The arrangement -- in which building inspector Gerard Harris kept 50 percent of inspection fees to supplement his $8,000 annual salary -- was discontinued this month when Harris was formally appointed to the post by the village board, village clerk Maureen Hernandez said Thursday.

Mayor Tom Keon was unavailable for comment.

Auditors examined the small village's books from June 2011 to October 2012 as part of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's efforts to audit towns, villages and school districts statewide.

In a report dated April 19 and released Wednesday, executive deputy comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo said village code appears to require annual appointment of a building inspector who is a village official. Instead, Harris was an independent contractor paid $84,197 during the audit period -- about $73,000 of which came from fees.

"Because there is no cap on the amount of fees paid to the building inspector, the village cannot know whether the individual's compensation is excessive in any given year," SanFilippo wrote, adding that Branch officials "may also have made a poor business decision" if Harris earned more than inspectors in comparable villages.

The comptroller's office found no wrongdoing by the village, a community of about 1,800 residents within the Town of Smithtown, and which shares part of the downtown Smithtown business district.

In a written response included with the report, Keon said village officials "agree with the findings" and pledged to appoint a building inspector.

The village board on April 9 hired Harris at an annual part-time salary of $30,000, Hernandez said. Harris is the appointed building inspector for two other villages, Nissequogue and Head of the Harbor.

The report, noting that village building inspectors "generally" are required to be residents of the municipalities they serve and sworn into their posts, said Harris was neither.

Hernandez said village law will be amended to allow Harris, of Port Jefferson, to live anywhere in Suffolk County to satisfy the residency requirement. He will be sworn in at a future meeting, she said.

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