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State audit slams Coram Fire District bidding policies

Fire trucks parked inside the Coram fire station

Fire trucks parked inside the Coram fire station on Route 25 in Coram. (June 2, 2005) Photo Credit: David L. Pokress

The Coram Fire District violated state bidding law - in one instance by awarding a contract to a fire commissioner's brother - and failed to properly supervise the district treasurer, according to a state comptroller's audit.

The district did not seek competitive bids for certain contracts - including two for more than $53,000 for landscaping and snow removal that went to Heidrich Landscaping and Half Mile Landscaping, both of Coram and both owned by Brian Heidrich, brother of board commissioner Timothy Heidrich, according to the comptroller's office.

The district did not publicly advertise for bids for the two contracts, worth $32,891 and $20,550, violating both general municipal law and the district's own policy, the recently released report said.

In a strongly worded written reply, the district said it "takes exception" to the findings, although it did not defend the lack of competitive bidding for the contracts.

"Your auditor took no note of the fact that the district had used this same vendor continuously for several years before that particular board member took office," said the written reply. Timothy Heidrich was a board member during the time in question, 2008 and 2009, according to the audit.

The district did not return calls for comment Thursday.

The audit said it appears the district "was attempting to circumvent bidding requirements" in previous years by awarding the same two companies separate landscaping and snow removal contracts that, when combined, exceeded the $20,000 threshold for public bidding.

Districts get into this kind of trouble when they don't have commissioners with business experience, said Michael Flynn, a Manorville fire commissioner who said he was speaking as a taxpayer. "All special districts should have a number of outsiders, people not on the inside," he said. "Nepotism has no place whatsoever" in fire district business.

The comptroller's report also warned of a lack of oversight of the district treasurer, resulting in violations of district policy requiring written permission from a commissioner for overtime, and a lack of time records for some employees. In one instance, a mechanic was paid $489 for 8.5 hours of overtime in April 2009, when his attendance record said he worked 0.5 hours of overtime. The district said he was paid extra for working on a holiday.

"Although the treasurer told us that she was instructed to calculate overtime in this manner by her predecessor, other employees who worked on the holiday did not receive an overtime payment for holiday time earned," the report said. The district replied that the mechanic's overtime pay was appropriate, and "the board remains adamant that all overtime is preapproved by a commissioner, whether your auditors found evidence of such pre-approval or not."

Auditors also said the district collected nearly $6,000 in rental fees for use of its catering hall, and gave the money to the fire department's recreation fund instead of depositing it as mandated by law in district accounts with taxpayer funds.

The district contends the money paid was the cost of maintaining and cleaning the hall.

"The board and the department have reached an accommodation by which the department agreed to undertake the above tasks as a fundraising activity," the district wrote. In 2003, the Coram Fire District built Long Island's biggest firehouse: a $7.7-million, 39,000-square-foot structure, with ornate moldings, spacious offices and a gym with tiki bar. Its annual budget was $5.3 million in 2009, the audit said.

 

Some of the audit's findings

No bidding

 

The brother of a commissioner got contracts for landscaping and snow removal without competitive bidding.

Closer eye

The district treasurer worked without oversight, and the district should segregate those duties.

Other fund

Money raised by renting the recreation hall was given to the department members for a recreation fund, not to the district's accounts.

Competition

The district did not competitively bid many professional services contract, although that is not mandated by law.

High tech

The district should implement a technology policy to secure its computer systems.

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