Herbst-Musto relationship crumbles after receipt request spirals out of control

Restaurant receipts, legal opinions, reimbursement policies, IRS regulations, and cash balances and investment income all converged this week in Trumbull as the town’s first selectman, Tim Herbst, and its treasurer, Anthony Musto, walked the political tightrope together after the latter requested the former’s itemized credit card receipts earlier this month.

Wading through the dozens and dozens of pages of documents, one thing remains clear: Trumbull’s top officials need to sit down and mend their broken relationship or the town will suffer from their discord.

It’s hard for that meeting to happen when the treasurer spends two hours a week in Town Hall, according to Herbst. But treasurer is a job that requires a lot of work to be done outside the office, Musto contests.

Where’s the middle ground?

It’s certainly not in the pages and pages of receipts culled from the first selectman’s annual $5,000 expense account or in Musto’s report and performance at the Board of Finance last Thursday night — both of which have been under the critical eye of the other this week.

While a majority of his restaurant tabs comply with IRS Regulation 463, a record-keeping stipulation that requires the receipt to include the business’s name and location, the number of people served at the meal, and the date and amount of the expense, Herbst admitted he could do a better job at being more specific with the details of staff meeting lunches and business dinners.

But he doesn’t have to provide itemized details of what someone ate or drank at a given meal, per Regulation 463, which, for better or worse, is what the town follows for internal compliance from its elected official.

As treasurer, Musto would like to enact his own reimbursement policy for town employees. Progress is being made on that front, according to the town’s finance department, but there wasn’t any immediate resolution this week because the town was busy pushing through its nine-figure budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

As for Musto’s “careless and sloppy” financial report presentation to the Board of Finance on April 14 that was attacked by both Herbst and board chairman Elaine Hammers this week, the treasurer said it was an unfortunate mistake of putting a decimal in the wrong place and attaching a draft of the document, rather than the final copy of it.

Herbst said Musto is working too hard on finding “the smoking gun” to sabotage his administration and that’s why the report came in the way it did. He even alluded to a theory that Musto wasn’t preparing the reports himself after he watched footage of the meeting and saw that the treasurer could not answer the board’s questions and failed to present a timely correction on Friday, April 15, or Monday, April 18.

A corrected report was supplied to the board Wednesday — one that was still full of errors, according to Hammers.

While she wants to know where the town’s money is and whether the $350,000 goal for interest income will be met by June 30, Musto says the interest is still building at the normal .38% rate and that the bottom-line number for interest income on the town’s investments — albeit incorrect when presented last Thursday — will exceed the goal set by the finance board to help balance the budget.

When it comes to the first selectman’s expenses, Musto doesn’t deny his concern. He said he wants to see specifically what he is approving for reimbursement and does not understand why there has been so much resistance thus far.

Party affiliation is the answer — Herbst is a Republican serving in his fourth term as first selectman and Musto is a Democrat who previously served as treasurer under former First Selectman Ray Baldwin, also a Democrat, almost a decade ago before being re-elected in November.

Both have dug into each other’s pasts this past week — what each leader has said and what each has done about expense account reimbursement and which policy is more favorable for the taxpayers of Trumbull.

But at the present time, there’s a more important question that Herbst and Musto are both circling around in their investigation and criticism of each other — a time-consuming process that they each hope will result in a better Trumbull.

Ironically, they share common ground in admitting that there is room for better performance, whether it’s being more specific with receipts or placing a decimal point in the right column of a monthly financial report.

Errors have been made, and now the question is, can the damage from this week be repaired?