Wilton Board of Finance will investigate alleged misuse of HVAC funds

On the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 22, the Board of Finance received an email requesting that the board approve an audit of the Wilton Public Schools operations unit, Chairman Warren Serenbetz announced at the board’s meeting that evening.

The email, sent by Wilton parent Marissa Lowthert, questioned whether there had been a misappropriation of funds related to a 2002-2004 HVAC project at Miller-Driscoll School.

“The last HVAC project for Miller-Driscoll was approved by taxpayers in 2002,” said Mr. Serenbetz. “The stated purpose of that project was to bring air conditioning into sections of the school that then did not have any.”

The original bond question approved by voters specified money “to air condition Miller and Driscoll Schools” and did not refer to replacing the HVAC system. (The money was actually approved over the course of two years: $700,000 in 2000 and an additional $200,000 in 2002.)

According to the email, provided to The Bulletin by Wiltonian Ed Papp, Ms. Lowthert questioned whether it was “possible [a former employee] misappropriated funds for a new HVAC system and as a result [Miller-Driscoll] has had a 40-year-old system instead of the updated system taxpayers paid for?”

This argument, however, fails to add up for two distinct reasons, town officials have said.

First, the $900,000 project was publicly bid and regularly reviewed by auditors and the town finance department, said Mr. Serenbetz. Its only objective was to provide air conditioning to areas of the school that did not have any, and did not include a replacement of the 40-year-old HVAC system in place at Miller-Driscoll as Ms. Lowthert alleged.

Additionally, the individual named by Ms. Lowthert as the employee likely to have misappropriated related funds was never involved in the Miller-Driscoll air conditioning upgrade.

“The project was never handled by the person to whom the misappropriation of funds is alleged,” Mr. Serenbetz said.

Both Mr. Serenbetz and Sandra Dennies, the town’s chief financial officer, said there are many layers of bureaucratic approval any project must go through before and after any money is spent, making the misappropriation of funds unlikely.

“The project was completed in 2004 for $886,000 and was closed out a couple years ago by the Board of Finance, returning $14,000 to the town’s general fund,” said Mr. Serenbetz. “There are invoices for all the spending in the project and the state has already started their audit for the project as a normal course of their business.”

According to Mr. Serenbetz, the project was also managed by a project manager and a facilities manager.

“The project was subject to regular financial review appropriate to bonded funds,” said Mr. Serenbetz.

Based on these facts, he said, it is “highly unlikely” taxpayer funds for the Miller-Driscoll project were misused.

Speaking to The Bulletin on Monday, Ms. Dennies said, “I’ve got it all right here. It was engineered, put out to bid, and contracted with a contractor. There was not one misappropriation of funds. There are too many signatures and letters back and forth getting approval from the state.”

Regardless of the claim’s apparent lack of standing, the Board of Finance head said a full audit will be considered as an option.

“The allegation with respect to misappropriation of funds is currently based on hearsay evidence,” said Mr. Serenbetz. “However, the Board of Finance considers this to be a very serious matter, which will require further investigation of the details.”

According to Mr. Serenbetz, the town’s auditors regularly perform random tests of transactions using various algorithms and have never identified a misappropriation of funds.

Mr. Serenbetz said the board will pursue the allegations in the coming weeks to determine if a special audit is warranted.

“There will be several steps involved,” said Mr. Serenbetz.

The first step, he said, would be to talk with town auditors and see if they uncovered anything in the normal course of their audits at the time of the alleged misappropriation.

The next step would be to seek clarification and any detail that Wilton Public Schools may have on the situation.

“If a special audit [is] necessary, we [will] hire a forensic accountant to look at the allegations and ascertain their veracity,” explained Mr. Serenbetz.

Board member Lynne Vanderslice said the allegations will be an agenda item in the Board of Finance’s February meeting as a follow-up to what the board learns over the next few weeks.

Missing documents

Curt Noel, of 27 Keelers Ridge Road, addressed the allegation of misappropriated funds on behalf Ms. Lowthert, who was unable to attend the Jan. 22 meeting. He also claimed that documents about Miller-Driscoll’s HVAC system are missing, and he accused the Board of Education of unethical conduct.

“State law requires that maintenance documents are kept, which would include documents relating to the HVAC system,” said Mr. Noel.

Connecticut Statute 170-10-231(e) requires schools to keep records of any maintenance performed on a heating system for five years. School officials told The Bulletin Tuesday that no maintenance has been conducted on the HVAC system since 2006, which is outside the five-year period.

Mr. Serenbetz told Mr. Noel, “If there’s an issue of the Board of Education not providing information, then that’s a Board of Education issue — not a Board of Finance issue.”

“Board of Finance will address the allegation of misappropriated funds,” Mr. Serenbetz reiterated.

“We will continue to do more audits, and if the Board of Selectmen — in order to do the audit and bring in the third-party tester — needs funds from the charter authority, then we’ll consider that when the time comes.”