Hornell Trade Association Emerges From State Audit Cloud

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Hornell Partners for Growth, Maple City’s business improvement district with nearly 300 members, has rebounded from a critical state audit that led to a felony conviction of its former executive director, according to a senior law enforcement official. city ​​and the chairman of its board of directors.

These leaders said the 2022 HPG is being run with more professionalism and transparency after numerous practices that led state auditors to slam the city for inadequate oversight and lax oversight of HPG funds were modified.

The New York State Comptroller’s Office reviewed HPG’s books for the period April 1, 2015 to October 2, 2017.

State audit leads to felony charges and conviction

Although the monitor’s full report was released only last month, many of its findings and recommendations were communicated to the HPG much earlier, BID officials said.

Based on the findings of an audit and subsequent investigation, Michelle “Shelly” Stevens, former executive director of HPG, was charged in 2020 with grand larceny in the fourth degree and falsification of business documents in the first degree for having allegedly stole $1,711 in cash from the group’s 4th of July festival. .

The case was settled earlier this year with Stevens, who led HPG from 2014 to 2018, pleading guilty to grand larceny in the fourth degree. She was ordered to pay $1,711 in restitution.

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Audit predates current HPG management

Michelle R. Pogue, who assumed HPG’s board chair on April 1, 2018, said the BID began implementing the state’s recommendations almost immediately and was “going beyond what the recommendations were”.

“I think when you hear ‘Comptroller’s Office’ you should be a little nervous, but everyone has worked with us,” Pogue added. “They were very supportive. They tried to help us through that.

“We went as far as possible to tighten everything up. They saw our efforts and were very helpful.

Hornell Mayor John Buckley took office in January 2018. Buckley said it was a lot to take in and mentally process.

“Obviously when someone takes advantage or breaks public trust, there’s going to be a lot of negativity on HPG because of that,” he said. “You have to not only absorb this, but you have to pivot and say, ‘What are we going to do about this? “”

HPG changed policies based on audit results

Buckley and Pogue said all corrections stemming from the state audit were passed in 2018.

A major reform was the elimination of all cash transactions.

“Obviously that was a big part of the auditor’s findings,” Buckley said. “We have completely ended this practice.”

Auditors also cited HPG’s longstanding policy — a policy that predates Stevens’ — of allowing businesses located outside of the district’s legal boundaries to participate in BID activities for a fee of $175.

Buckley said the fees weren’t applied consistently or fairly. State auditors noted that the average valuation of companies located in the IDB’s geographic area was $634 in 2017, which is 3.5 times higher than the membership fees charged to companies outside the IDB. .

Pogue said the policy ended before 2018. Under the current policy, only businesses within the geographic boundaries of the district are allowed to become members.

The BID has eliminated the position of Executive Director, opting instead for a BID manager who focuses on promotions, event planning, communications and achieving the council’s vision and goals. Valorie Whitehill was hired as District Manager in January 2019 and she remains in that position.

According to HPG, several other reforms were implemented in 2018, including:

  • Added mail opening process to have two initials on all mail as it arrives.
  • The BID official does not have her name on the bank account. She cannot write checks or perform banking transactions of any kind.
  • The BID manager is not part of finance and requests in writing all items that need to be purchased.
  • Two signatures are required on all checks and all checks are reviewed by the Chairman of the Board of Directors or the Treasurer of HPG.
  • The president, the treasurer and the accountant are the only persons authorized to sign.
  • HPG does not collect fees for activities such as bouncy houses or similar items.
  • Revision of neighborhood boundaries.
  • New senior management members on the 15-member Board of Directors.

“We take the (Office of the Comptroller’s) recommendations to heart and agree with many of their key findings and recommendations,” Buckley said. “And I think our response reflects that.”

Jeremy Bittel, co-owner of Maple City Physical Therapy, agreed.

“I really think they’ve made some very positive changes,” Bittel said.

HPG created to promote economic development

The Hornell Common Council established HPG in 1997 to stimulate economic development. HPG sponsors festivals, promotes Hornell and provides support, advice, training and marketing to its member companies.

Members include retail businesses, banks, insurance companies, medical practices, printing companies, utilities, beauticians, lawyers, restaurants and bars, delicatessens, cafes and repair businesses. computers.

HPG and city leaders helped Maple City Physical Therapy celebrate the grand opening of its new Hornell location at 55 Broadway Mall on May 12.

Buckley said the audit should not overshadow HPG’s accomplishments.

“One thing I don’t want to lose in all of this is all the good that HPG does,” he said.

The main objective of HPG has not changed. It remains dedicated to “helping its members succeed and grow,” Pogue said.

This assistance includes marketing, promotions, social media coverage, software training, and sponsorship of annual community events such as the 4th of July Celebration, Fall Festival, and Hornell Home for the Holidays activities.

Pogue said events that bring visitors to Hornell are important because “once they’re here, they see things they love, they’re more likely to come back.”

“Gigantic leaps forward”

In 2019, HPG introduced a new logo depicting a segment of Hornell’s past – a railroad train – centered on an illustration of an orange-yellow maple leaf. The train tracks surround the exterior of the logo and the slogan “BUILDING A STRONG BUSINESS COMMUNITY” is incorporated into the upper and lower sections of the tracks.

Hornell Partners for Growth launched its new logo in 2019.

Pogue is also excited about an initiative launched last year – the HPG “Discover Hornell” app which includes news and information about each member company, a calendar of events, a link to the group’s webpage and offers. ‘job.

Pogue said one of the goals of the app is to attract more local students to Hornell. She said the results were promising.

“It has been an effective tool for promoting member businesses and events,” she said.

Pogue said she expects the audit clouds to persist for a few years. However, she conceded, “I didn’t expect it to take five years.”

“I think we’ve made giant strides,” Buckley said. “Since 2018, we’ve really pivoted and changed. Not only the way we do things structurally, but we’ve changed the culture at HPG. It’s more open, it’s more transparent. things are just handled more professionally.

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