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Expenditures shape Westhampton Beach trustee vote

The Westhampton Beach Village Hall, shown on April

The Westhampton Beach Village Hall, shown on April 16,2012, is located on Mill Road, at the north side of the Six Corners. Photo Credit: Erin Geismar

A good sign there has been vigorous debate at village hall: Streets in Westhampton Beach are checkered with competing campaign placards in front of houses and businesses.

The Village of Westhampton Beach has had a tumultuous 12 months, stemming from questions about village finances, which led to an outside audit. The audit found overpayments to village employees and expenditures approved by the mayor without other village trustees' knowledge.

Two incumbents who pushed for the audit and tighter spending controls in the village -- Hank Tucker and Patricia DiBenedetto -- are up for re-election.

DiBenedetto, 51, said some staff told trustees everything was fine with the finances. But the audit showed "there were indeed problems in Mayberry," she said.

On the other side is former village trustee Toni-Jo Birk, who lost her re-election bid last year by two votes. She's being supported by Mayor Conrad Teller, who's currently in the minority.

Birk called the problems "an error in payroll. . . . There's been a lot of negativity and dissension, unnecessarily so."

Tucker and DiBenedetto have taken a more critical view of the expenditures, which included a buyback of vacation time from the village police chief and six months of sick leave granted to a village employee, both approved by the mayor.

Tucker, 52, owner of Holey Moses Cheesecake, said the audit found village employees were overpaid $79,000. Teller, the mayor, said the correct figure is closer to $22,000 and maintains he had authority to approve the expenditures. The audit was not available last week.

Tucker said village trustees now have put in place checks and balances on payments. "We identified unauthorized payments of taxpayer dollars, without trustees' knowledge or approval," he said. "As a team, we took measures to recoup the money."

The additional approval now required for many village expenditures, Teller said, "doesn't matter to me. It just slows down government, which is slow enough as it is."

He said the audit found only minor problems, not unusual for any payroll system.

"They're making a mountain out of a molehill," Teller said. "It happens. With payrolls, in the heat of making up the budget, everything changes. An error was made. There's not usually made a big to-do about."

The village has had a budget surplus for four consecutive years, he said.

Tucker, though, said that for a year trustees were told there were no overpayments and no need for an audit. Birk "was deputy mayor while a lot of financial discrepancies took place. A lot of this was under her watch."

Birk, 53, a former real estate agent who works for the family business Bike 'N Kite in Westhampton, said she wanted to move forward and work with all sides.

Birk, who was on the board from 2006 until 2012, said that while dealing with personal issues during the past year, she has gotten a new perspective on the job. "I'm not the same woman I was a year ago," she said. "I'm a better person. My priorities are clear."

DiBenedetto, who first won a seat two years ago, said the board has been effective at putting in controls, and she wants to take further steps to formalize rules that govern the village.

"We're trying to keep it on an upswing," she said. "We're trying to go forward. We don't want to go backward."

Voting is Friday from noon to 9 p.m. at Village Hall, 165 Mill Rd.

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