November 28, 2021

Audit: C’ville improperly spent public funds

State comptroller: Town used $22,600 to create boat launch in Blodgett Mills

Cortland County Seal

The town of Cortlandville improperly spent $22,600 in public funds to create a boat launch on a former board member’s private property in Blodgett Mills, the state comptroller reported in an audit released Friday.

The state Constitution prohibits spending town money for the benefit of private parties, the comptroller said, and the town failed to put up signage indicating the boat launch was for public use, nor was it listed on the town website.

Cortlandville Supervisor Dick Tupper said Friday the town is creating signs for the property, which he says has been publicly used for many years. He also said the auditors found board members had committed no crime or fraud.

The comptroller’s audit, covering from Jan. 1, 2013, to Aug. 28, 2018, laid out a timeline:

August 2013 — Board members discussed creating a canoe and kayak launch point on the Tioughnioga River in Blodgett Mills.

January 2014 — A sitting board member, Greg Leach, who was not identified in the report — bought the property.

July 2014 — The board member got a permit to expand the parking lot and the town planning and zoning officers stated the board member was working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation for other permits.

May 2015 — The town highway department improved the parking area and modified the slope to make launching boats easier.

June 2015 — Leach announced he planned to grant an easement for recreational and fire department use.

June 2016 — The board authorized a lease agreement with Leach for access to the property. Leach recused himself from the vote and the discussion.

April 2018 — The lease was signed, backdated to June 2016.

“To my knowledge, other than idle chatter, there was no request by town residents and it was not requested by the fire department,” said town board member Doug Withey, who was elected in 2017. “The whole thing was just done wrong.”

The audit notes the fire chief — it did not specify whether it was Gerald Henry, who was chief in 2013, or Jered Gebel, who succeeded him — said the department did not need easier access and would rather use the nearest fire hydrant than the river if there were a nearby fire.

Tupper said the town did not realize the highway department was doing work, valued at $18,500, in May and June 2015 and added the highway department operates with little supervision by the board.

Former Highway Superintendent Carl Bush could not be reached for comment, but the audit says Bush told auditors the entire board knew his staff was doing the work.

At the time, then-Town Attorney John Folmer had been working with Leach’s attorney to draft a five-year lease that would allow boaters and kayakers access to the Tioughnioga River at Hiawatha Landing. The lease would cost $10 annually, but the audit found the town would pay for maintenance and insurance — about $4,100 between 2015 and 2018 — with no provision to recoup costs should either party break the lease.

Tupper said the delay in signing the lease was an oversight.

“It should never have taken that many months to get the lease but with two attorneys busy — and one involved in several lawsuits — we just didn’t get to the lease,” Tupper said.

When the lawyers finally got to the lease, Tupper said, it was just dated to the date the original resolution passed.

Tupper said the town board thought work was done to the site after it authorized the lease agreement — work he said could proceed because it was authorized by the board, even if the lease hadn’t been signed.

But he said the town is addressing the comptroller’s three recommendations. They are:

• Consult with the town attorney about whether it should recoup the costs for improving the property.

This is the most difficult recommendation, Tupper said, and one the board has a few options to consider, including seeking reimbursement for the work in one of several ways, or the property in its entirety; or sign a new lease.

Withey, however, said: “The issue isn’t going to go away until the cash register is filled again.”

• Consult with the town attorney about the lack of a state Department of Environmental Conservation permit and determine if a permit is needed before using the site.

Tupper expects the town board to adopt a resolution Wednesday stipulating that prior to carrying out work, the town needs to obtain proper DEC permits.

• Consider adopting a formal policy to protect the interests of the town when improving private property.

Tupper expects the board will pass such a resolution Wednesday stipulating the town won’t do work on a private property without a lease.

Managing Editor Todd R. McAdam contributed to this report.