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Syosset Fire District Changes Policies in Response to Audit

State Comptroller’s office criticizes district for lack of competitive bidding and ‘inappropriate’ computer access

In New York State, fire districts are legally required to advertise for competitive bids for purchases in excess of $20,000 and public works contracts in excess of $35,000. However, just because a project comes in below the legal limit doesn’t mean the district is footloose and fancy free; municipal law requires the board to adopt a policy that fosters competition to obtain goods and services at the lowest possible cost for all projects, no matter what the price tag. While the Syosset Fire District has not run afoul of state law in terms of the statutory bid thresholds, according to a recent audit by the office of State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the district lacks a policy to ensure that smaller projects are purchased at the best value for taxpayers.

The audit, covering the period of Jan.1, 2010 to Jun. 30, 2011, found two problems with Syosset Fire District: a lack of an effective policy for the procurement of goods and services that are not legally required to be competitively bid, and the lack of a policy outlining how user permissions must be established or modified in its financial and fire department management software.

Until recently, Syosset Fire District had a policy in effect that required three written quotes for any purchase over $5,000, but on Jan. 12 of this year, the board of fire commissioners adopted a new purchasing policy which removed this requirement. “As a result, the new policy provides no guidance or requirement for the use of competitive methods when procuring goods and services below the statutory bid thresholds,” the audit states.

On the topic of user permissions, the audit further specified that five out of six users of the financial software had what was deemed “inappropriate access,” and that users of the management software were granted permissions that were not necessary for their jobs. In one example cited, six users of the management software were granted system administrative access, despite having no need of those privileges. The comptroller’s office found one or more such discrepancy with each of the 28 users of the management software that they reviewed.

In response to the audit, the fire department has already made several changes, including reverting back to the original, more specific purchasing policy (although, as the audit states, the policy should require competitive bidding for projects under $5,000 as well.) According to a letter dated Mar. 12 from Giovanni Graceffa, chairman of the Syosset Board of Fire Commissioners, to Chief Examiner Ira McCracken, the district has also made several changes to user permissions, including limiting the superintendent’s permissions to “read-only” and limiting the number of users with access to the district’s management software. More changes are in the works, and will be included in a forthcoming corrective action plan.

While the fire district does not dispute the audit’s findings, the letter does intimate that having less stringent user permissions does not necessarily mean that any abuse took place. In regard to user permissions, Graceffa noted that “your office did not identify any instances of unauthorized computer access or inappropriate use of district systems.”

In addition, Graceffa explained that one expenditure specifically mentioned in the audit- an $11,976 payment to a vendor for building repairs “without securing estimates from other contractors”- came about as the result of an emergency.

“While the district does not challenge the finding regarding building repairs, the district would like to note that the repairs were in response to the fracturing of a concrete overhang, requiring immediate stabilization and repair. In the future, the district will make its best efforts to obtain additional estimates if similar situations arise,” wrote Graceffa,

When asked about this comment, Graceffa told the Syosset-Jericho Tribune that in the instance cited, the façade in the front of department headquarters on Cold Spring Road had suddenly became unstable, leading the district to ask contractors already working in another building to come stabilize it immediately due to safety concerns.

However, since this building repair was done in an emergency situation, does that render that particular criticism unfair?

“Not at all,” said Graceffa. “We thought that the bidding term was suspended due to the emergency situation…and we inadvertently did not follow the state protocol [because of that]. We understand, and we will comply if these situations come up again.”

Graceffa went on to say that he agrees with the audit’s findings, and furthermore, relishes the opportunity to improve the Syosset Fire District.

“We always look forward to these sorts of opportunities to see how well we’re doing,” he said. “It’s great to have a second pair of eyes come in.”