County puts safegaurds in place to protect against equipment removal, theft

UNION COUNTY — It might be a lot more difficult for county employees to take home a generator if another emergency situation arises like superstorm Sandy.

The county now has a comprehensive system in place to ensure all public property is effectively managed, documented and easily traced. Prior to this new policy, there was no effective and quick means of tracking thousands of county assets, or who might be taking home equipment at any given time.

The new policy, which began being developed following superstorm Sandy when it was discovered county employees took home generators valued between $5,000 and $15,000 each, is expected to prevent this from happening in the future.

The entire issue of county employees taking home generators after the devastating storm that left residents in the majority of the state without power came to light late last fall. Although initially it was not known how many employees took home generators, eventually information leaked that department heads were involved. Niel Palmieri was one of them.

While no employees actually lost their job as a result, on Sept. 27 Director of Facilities Management Niel Palmieri resigned from his job of 23 years and a few days later pled guilty in Federal Court to mail fraud. The charge was the result of an FBI investigation that looked into vendor Viva Group owner Frank Vicendese giving kickbacks to Palmieri in cash, gifts cards, expensive appliances and gym equipment in order to continue doing business with the county. The FBI estimated the county employee cheated the county out of $200,000 in revenue.

The new policy, which should prevent this from happening in the future, was approved by Union County Manager Al Faella this month. It was developed by the county manager, Department of Administrative Services Director Matthew DiRado and Director of Asset Management Kathy Villaggio, who worked together for nine months to ensure the policy and safeguards would protect the county from any misuse of equipment or fraud.

Faella said in an interview with LocalSource that while it was a lengthy process, when all was said and done another layer of protection was in place.

Faella, DiRado and Villaggio said they worked together to document the requirements and responsibilities necessary for effective management of all tangible county property, a task that at times seemed endless. The process also involved taking an inventory, which Faella said was difficult considering all the property the county actually owns.

DiRado agreed, explaining further how this inventory took place.
“This was more about creating a log of assets, serial numbers, and location of all our tangible property,” he said, noting that in addition to generators, the county has thousands of pieces of equipment worth a considerable amount of money.

“We actually have about 6,000 assets, which includes anything worth over $100,” Faella said, explaining each department head was charged with tallying up their own assets, which helped speed the process. While that could leave some holes, Faella said it was the only way to get the job done and even that took many months.

Once department heads submitted these lists, DiRado said the next task was finding a computer software program that would easily track the property.

DiRado said it took nine months to get everything ready to roll so the county would have a firm handle on assets such as snowblowers, generators, televisions and even larger equipment like vehicles and trucks. Knowing where this property was at any given time was the goal.
“Going forward we now have a computerized program of what department has property over $100 in value, the serial number and cost,” he explained, adding that the county is also aware of what equipment was obtained by grant or taxpayer dollars as well as the life expectancy.
“This is just another level of security we needed and now we have it,” Faella added.

But the job did not end there by any means.
Villaggio said the process of gathering all of this information and computerizing it was only the first step.
“What we are doing is sending a list of these assets to each department head and they will be checking on this property to keep us informed of the status on a regular basis,” she said, adding that once a year that list will be certified.

“The list will change depending on what the condition of the property is and whether it is no longer in use,” Villaggio said, but noted that if a piece of equipment goes missing, breaks or is retired, they will know.

DiRado said there are also other measures in place to ensure county property is not being misused, but he preferred not getting into those safeguards because that would defeat the purpose of tracking county property so it is not abused or stolen.
“I think employees should just know that we are on top of this now,” Faella said.

The policy, obtained by LocalSource through the Open Public Records Act, outlined how the inventory will be recorded, clearly explaining how the county will be handling property from now on.
Now, “at least once a year” every department head will take a complete physical inventory of all assets listed
under their respective departments. It further indicated
the Office of Asset Management will develop the necessary procedures to implement this policy “as expeditiously as possible.” However, there was no explanation as to what those procedures might be.

The complete inventory will take place no later than Jan. 31 of the following year when a list of all “fixed assets” or property over $5,000 in value with a useful life of five years has to be submitted to the Director of the Department of Finance. That would include among other things, generators, vehicles and machinery used by the public works.

More importantly, the county now has it in writing that “all” employees are responsible for maintaining county property. They mentioned specifically that there will be “no additions or subtractions” in the inventory without the approval of department or division heads. This referred directly to the generators that went missing immediately following superstorm Sandy, as well as other county-owned property that has disappeared over the years.

The county also said in the missive that failure by any employee to conform to this policy would result in “employee discipline up to and including termination.”
As of Jan. 1 of this year all employees, including division and department heads, upon receiving a new piece of inventory, must send a copy of the packing slip, signed voucher, invoice, serial numbers of the item and location of the item.
At that point a bar code label will be issued and attached to the item, regardless of the size.
If the property is no longer in use and removed from inventory on a temporary or permanent basis, such as to be repaired by an outside vendor, the Office of Asset Management has to be notified within three working days.

Some of the items that were included on the inventory list included hand tools over $1,200, power tools, lawn and ground equipment, desk phones appliances, hospital equipment, computers, audio visual equipment, printers, copiers, emergency management equipment, and all vehicles, trailers, trucks and busses.