The first sign there was a problem came last November.
At the Nov. 2 New Palestine Town Council meeting, street commissioner Stephen Pool informed the council the town had missed out on the Community Crossings Grant from INDOT for the first time in a few years.
New Palestine officials had omitted half of the town’s roads from its road inventory, and, as a result, the town has missed out on tax dollars from the state to help with paving and maintenance.
According to INDOT, New Palestine had not been claiming a total of 7.8 miles along 49 streets and roads in town, and had claimed only 8.4 miles of roads from 2015 through 2018.
Why the omission happened still remains a mystery.
However, New Palestine Town Manager David Book has said the error is solely on his shoulders.
At the Dec. 7 meeting, Book, who did not respond to several attempts for comment from Giant FM, apologized for the error, stating he missed the reporting. Furthermore, Pool reported the town missed out on about $8,500 in tax dollars as a result of the omission.
INDOT officials told Giant FM the omission, while bad for municipalities, is not that rare.
Mallory Duncan, communications director for East Central INDOT District, told Giant FM that it is very “common that a town or county has not updated their road inventory.”
“INDOT has been receiving a lot more updates in the last few years because there is an incentive because of the Community Crossings Grants,” Duncan said.
Duncan told Giant FM there were several opportunities for New Palestine to catch the issue.
“INDOT annually sends out a summary of each Local Government Agency’s Inventory mileage. In that summary, we request to be notified of any changes that have occurred. The deadline for submitting changes in order to be included in the next official certified mileage report to the Auditor of the State is Dec. 31. INDOT will accept changes to the road inventory at any time throughout the year, however. It will help the town or county to review the summary right when they get it each year, and if there are differences, contact INDOT to make those changes,” Duncan said.
That, however, did not happen through the years.
Duncan said if a town or county under reports their inventory mileage, it could impact their Motor Vehicle Tax distributions.
Angela Fahrnow, who was appointed to the council earlier this month, has questioned the missing roads since November and told Giant FM she believes the lost tax revenue could be over $500,000.
Fahrnow told Giant FM that while everyone makes mistakes, she would expect council to factor in both the positives and the negatives in coming up with any resolution.
“It is reasonably possible other issues will surface, but we certainly are not going to accuse people of wrongdoing without substance,” Fahrnow told Giant FM.
Town officials, however, do not believe the amount is quite that high. New Palestine Town Council president Brandee Bastin said she believes the amount to be closer to $200,000.
“It is also very disappointing to realize how much money the town has lost over the years as a result of these errors, and I’m sure we will never know the exact amount, although the estimates are at least $200,000. I have recently been advised by someone with government experience that we may have insurance coverage for errors and omissions, and I will be looking into this,” Bastin told Giant FM.
Bastin also expressed both surprise and disappointment on the issue.
“I have been both surprised and disappointed upon learning of the road mileage inventory errors that have been made over the years, some going back decades. All of these roads were developed in town prior to my election to council to 2017, and it is hard to understand how a process wasn’t in place to ensure these roads are added to our inventory as they are developed. Now, we know that process wasn’t there and working with INDOT, the engineering firms we work with on our roads and infrastructure, all of these entities must be vigilant and work together to ensure this does not happen again in the future,” Bastin told Giant FM.
Council newcomer Bill Niemier said that despite the news, he believes the town still can accomplish great things.
“I continue to believe that great things, such as more residential and commercial development, are coming to New Palestine. The road mileage mistake has been corrected and that issue is on everyone’s radar and very unlikely to occur again. There are also more people looking at details such as this, which will help avoid similar mistakes in the future,” he told Giant FM.
Resident Chris Lytle is also among those “shocked and disappointed” by the news.
“I’m extremely angry. This is 100 percent unacceptable. I feel like the people of New Palestine have been either over taxed or we haven’t gotten the services we deserve. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are gone and not coming back because of negligence. Something needs to be done about this immediately. An apology doesn’t cut it. I don’t care if some people say this is how things are done here, or it’s just the way it is. It is definitely time for a change, and let’s fix these problems,” Lytle said.
As for potential fallout or repercussions, those remain anyone’s guess.
Lytle said a change must take place.
“The person responsible has been on the job 36 years. I don’t want politicians in for life or town managers. We need some new blood in there,” Lytle told Giant FM.
Fahrnow said her desire is simple – changes to the town’s internal control environment, complete transparency and fluid communication with the community.
“My message is both consistent with what I stand for and what keeps me motivated to help the town. I will do whatever I can to identify issues and opportunities to help make the town better, and bridge the gap between these town matters and the community,” Fahrnow said.
Niemier also said the town can and should improve its internal controls.
“I do know going forward the Town Council will always try to do what is best, and in no way am I implying that prior councils did not have the same goal. The best way we can do this is address and solve any issues, good or bad, as we become aware of them. The current council will ask questions and scrutinize things more than ever because it’s the right thing to do,” Niemier told Giant FM.
Bastin told Giant FM any issue relating to personnel changes must be made by the council in an executive session format.
“At this point, these personnel matters resulting from this situation and any other matter that has come to our attention, must be discussed at an executive session of the town council, which, hopefully, will occur later this week,” Bastin told Giant FM.