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The independent audit advisory committee met with the town board during a work session yesterday. Photo: Courtney Blasl.

Audit committee: Building department showed ‘dramatic’ progress in oversight, management and procedures

The independent audit committee that found the Riverhead building department to be in need of “substantial improvement” in 2013 found the department has made “dramatic” progress in a review presented to the Riverhead Town Board yesterday morning.

“When we did the initial report… the building department had recently come under Jeff Murphree. There were a lot of staff changes taking place, so it was a perfect time to come in and take a look,” said Jack Orben, head of Riverhead Town’s Independent Audit Advisory Committee.

The committee, which was created in 2012 to “monitor Riverhead’s budget and financial condition,” conducted an audit of the building department the following year.

“We discovered that there were policies and practices that were not being followed. The department was functioning, but it could function much better,” Orben said. The audit committee recommended the department improve procedures for the collection of building permit revenue, to ensure that all fees collected were calculated in accordance to town code and to make sure that the processed applications were being reviewed and approved by supervisory personnel.

“One of the things we found was that there were documents that were not being properly submitted for filing. There’s a checklist that is supposed to be used by the department [to indicate what was inside the file,] and those weren’t being completed,” said Charlene Kagel the auditor who works with the committee.

She also cited the department’s loss of the Long Island Aquarium file as evidence that the department’s file management system needed improvement.

“Before Jeff became department head, there was a practice of lending files to other departments, and no way to track them,” Kagel said, explaining how files like the aquarium’s become lost. “That has since stopped. And the good news is, since the files have been organized and moved, they have located the aquarium file and it has been placed in its proper location.”

In the July 2016 review, the committee sampled permits issued from 2014-2015 to check that proper procedures had been followed. It identified several key improvements that still need to be made, namely file maintenance and fee calculations.

Of the 14 files examined, half had at least one instance of non-compliance with department policy, the report reads. The committee recommended, as it had after its previous audit, that the department enforce the checklist system. It also recommends that the department change its policy to include a supervisor randomly checking for compliance to procedures, instead of the current policy, which indicates that a review is only conducted upon receipt of a complaint.

The committee also reported issues with fee calculation. One problem found was a frequent but minor miscalculation of application fees, resulting in a $12 error, Kagel said.

“The other condition we found in need of fixing is in regard to fees for commercial applications. The code indicates that the fee should be determined either by standard square foot calculations or an estimated construction cost submitted by the applicant. Policy is that the department should use whichever results in a higher fee,” Kagel said.

The report says this “discretionary” component allows for the“potential risk” of an incorrect fee being be charged. The committee recommended implementing a review and approval procedure for fee calculations, or requiring documentation of how the applicant got its estimate (bids, quotes, etc.).

Both of the issues involving fee calculation, Kagel pointed out, will be solved when the building department begins using new permit software.

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