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Hempstead Town animal shelter criticized in county audit

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman discusses an audit

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman discusses an audit of the Hempstead Town Animal Shelter. Credit: Newsday/John Asbury

The Nassau County comptroller recommended the Hempstead Town Animal Shelter make financial reforms after an audit found that management did not maintain payroll records and that charitable donations were spent along with taxpayer dollars.

Comptroller Jack Schnirman also recommended the town conduct an operational audit, including using outside animal experts, after more than 50 complaints and allegations from residents regarding purchasing, staffing and care of animals at the shelter.

The audit reviewed the shelter's finances from 2015 to 2017. It was initiated last year by Schnirman and Town Supervisor Laura Gillen upon both taking office. 

Auditors were blocked by town officials from obtaining some records, including job descriptions and a management organizational chart, Schnirman said. Auditors were denied access to the shelter unless supervised. A prearranged visit had to be with approval of the town comptroller's office. 

"Our auditors were met with some long-serving town staff that was unresponsive or unwilling to cooperate to get us the information we need," Schnirman said.

Gillen said the audit was hindered by antiquated record keeping, which is in the process of being digitized.

The animal shelter has been under scrutiny for the past decade after allegations of mismanagement and concerns about treatment of animals, including multiple lawsuits that were settled or later dismissed.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found similar issues in a 2012 audit, including poor record keeping, overspending and uncontrolled overtime. In 2017, former Nassau comptroller George Maragos was blocked from conducting an audit by a Nassau County Supreme Court judge who said a performance audit of the shelter exceeded his authority. 

Schnirman's auditors asked for staffing documents but were told that Town Attorney Joe Ra instructed town comptroller Kevin Conroy not to answer general staffing questions because he said they were limited by the court's ruling. 

"A broader audit would have been preferable, but a state Supreme Court decision limited the review to only financial records, and we complied with that decision," Gillen said.

Schnirman cited "a serious lack of transparency and major financial problems" with the town’s “Tails of Hope” charity. The charity took private funding to provide animal care, but the funds were not separately maintained and were included in the town’s operating budget.

Donations, which were not tracked separately, amounted to $77,000 over three years, but the charity spent $33,000 more than  the sum donated in that period. Three invoices were billed to a town veterinarian's private business instead of to the shelter.

Expenses rose to $4.25 million in 2017, exceeding the budget by $428,893, the audit found. The shelter also held $1 million in contracted services, including $184,000 in legal expenses related to lawsuits by former shelter employees, volunteers and animal welfare activists.

“The risk of waste, fraud and abuse was increased by improper preparation and review of overtime slips,” the audit states, finding that overtime slips did not always match attendance records.

Town officials told auditors that improvements have been made to reduce overtime and that a new purchasing system was added to automate payroll and improve controls over cash receipts. 

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