The Marion Finance Committee met at the Music Hall on September 16 and heard from the Old Rochester Regional School District for the first time.
Superintendent of Schools Mike Nelson and Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Howie Barber attended at the bequest of Town Administrator Jay McGrail to answer Fincom’s questions related to the audit.
“The reality is that these guys have gone through the most amazing last two months of their lives, probably ever, trying to get to the point where they have kids in school today so we’ve got to cut them a little bit of a break,” explained McGrail. “A, they’re brand new and, B, they’ve been through a lot to get to today so there’s a learning curve.”
Nelson officially replaced retired superintendent Doug White on July 1, and Barber has been on the job less than two months.
“We do appreciate it. We’re looking forward to the new administration and working together to bring financial security to the district and to provide you the necessary equipment to get the things you need for the schools,” said FincomChairman Peter Winters.
In his first meeting with Fincom as superintendent, Nelson said it is extremely important to forge a partnership amidst the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
Nelson highlighted Barber’s accounting background, a topic of discussion in recent years, and noted the addition of Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Jannell Pearson-Campbell and Director of Student Services Craig Davidson.
In remarking on the audit reports, Barber addressed Fincom.
In summarizing his experience of 14 years as a school business financial officer and over 20 years as a CPA in public practice as well as audits and tax programming, Barber said ORR and Fincom can work to set “some high-level goals” in the short and long term.
Barber noted that ORR is still in the process of finalizing its FY20 books. “I know that there has been some – when I reviewed the audit documents – some cumulative items of interest over the past couple of years that have been pointed out on the audit findings and so forth, but knowing that a lot of the these items that are on these reports so far have a relatively quick and easy process as far as cleaning it up,” he said. “I think a lot of it related to the end-of-year report or simply maybe just a matter of postings and some adjusting. There was a lot of turn of accounts for some reason, that had some inactivation that was set up on the turn of accounts.”
Barber told Fincom also met a couple of occasions with Town Administrator Jay McGrail and Assistant Town Administrator and Financial Director Judy Mooney.
Winters invited questions from committee members, and Charlie Larkin put the situation into perspective.
“From where we are, it’s pretty hard to get into specifics. It’s just not really fair and there’s too many other important things, but what would be helpful is some broad outline in terms of how you would prepare the financial information that we could look at,” he said. “Not that it’s a business, but it certainly has income and expenses, and it’s really difficult to look at one year like this without, say, looking at five years together.”
Fincom made a similar request of Mooney regarding Marion’s trends when the town budget was being presented during winter meetings. Fincom expressed great satisfaction at the time when given a five-year financial picture.
“I’m more interested in what your thoughts are – maybe it’s too soon to ask – but what your thoughts are in terms of getting some consistency of financial reporting,” said Larkin, who noted half the town budget is in the schools so “job one” in his opinion is to learn what happens every year and what changes and how it changes.
Barber explained to Larkin that there are annual school committee budget subcommittee meetings, and during that timeframe the budgets prepared by Nelson and Barber are discussed by the school committees.
Barber said the three-month period in which the budget is expressed and dissected by school committees addresses the past, present and future and, in his mind, presents “the most-keen opportunities for members of this committee to attend.
“Now you’re obviously not going to be able to negotiate with it because (it’s the domain of the school committee), but it gives you the opportunity of seeing it,” he said.
Barber explained that the FY21 budget most recently approved last month by Mattapoisett School Committee is “extremely conservative” and noted that the governor has only passed three months’ worth of the overall Chapter 70 funds. ORR has yet to receive the funds for the period covering October through the end of the fiscal year (June 30, 2021).
Nelson and Barber oversee four separate budgets within the ORR School District. Not knowing one month to the next if school will remain a hybrid attendance plan to go full in person or full remote leaves the process necessarily as conservative as possible. Lacking a sense of security, grant money is more targeted than ever.
Nelson said his goal is to have a transparent process and the common goal of the various committees.
Winters said a problem in the past has been getting a budget early. “We typically weren’t getting a budget until March,” he said. He also said it’s difficult to interpret the budget when revenues would be deducted out from the expenses “so we’d get net expenses instead of the gross expense.
“We need to know what’s being spent on specific items and what the total expenses are to determine if the budgets are efficient or accurate so those are some of the issues that we’ve been dealing with,” said Winters.
Other members discussed the absence of revenue from school choice in past budgets.
When those issues were addressed during winter meetings, Mooney explained that the information as requested is not part of a typical budget presentation because individual pieces become subject to the practice of achieving an overall budget.
Committee member Jay Pateakos said, “This committee hates surprises.”
Committee member Karen Kevelson referenced “sneaky budgeting” of the past and urged transparency. “I’ve done this for a long, long time and, I’ll tell you, a lot of people in this town are not happy. … Just please be forthright with us, that’s all we’re asking.”
Margie Baldwin said Nelson’s and Barber’s appearance at Fincom is a huge first step and does not want to see an adversarial relationship develop with the new administration. Barber acknowledged the possibility of anger from prior relationships, but says the common goal will ensure transparency and a team approach is vital.
Kevelson asked if Barber likes what he does. “Love it,” he answered.
“Do you think you’re good at it?” “Yep.”
“Then you’re fine,” said Kevelson.
Members of Fincom stressed a more active approach and partnership and working together with ORR administration.
Specific items were addressed and clarified.
Mooney was asked by Fincom for her opinion of the ORR audit.
“It’s not the best audit, but I’ve seen worse. These are clerical errors … those are things you can work on. … In this case, it’s more of those little things put in the wrong place,” she said.
After further discussion, Winters said, “I think we are in good hands,” and bid Nelson and Barber adieu.
McGrail advised Fincom of plans for a Special Town Meeting on November 9 for the purpose of withdrawal from the Carver Marion Wareham Refuse Disposal District. Moving forward wasn’t possible without the support of all three towns, and McGrail said Marion, which has curbside pickup, has conflicting interests from the other two towns.
McGrail said Marion has left money in CMW and that the best use of it is to prefund the retirement of the employees.
“We would like Benson Brook back,” he said. The transfer station reverts to Marion upon its withdrawal from the district in keeping with the deed. Citing a series of 10-year trusts created by SEMASS in 2015 that extend out 30 years, Marion is in solid position to end its participation, according to McGrail. “We have multiple levels of protection. … If SEMASS goes belly-up, we have exposure there.”
The withdrawal will take place on December 31. CMW will vote next week, then Marion’s Town Meeting approval on November 9 will solidify the situation.
McGrail also told Fincom that one of the harbormaster’s patrol boats lost service of a 300 horse-power outboard motor that will cost $21,522 to replace. The funds will come from the waterways account.
The Town House donations from Sippican Historical Society are ongoing with work outside and, later this year, the windows. The roof has been done.
Marion Open Space Acquisition Committee (MOSAC) is interested in a parcel on Route 6 and is interested in participating in the Special Town Meeting. “That could play out, it may not,” said McGrail.
The warrant for the Special Town Meeting closes on Tuesday, September 29.
Fincom also had reorganization on its agenda, and voted to make Winters and Shay Assad as co-chairs. Pateakos was voted as clerk.
The next meeting of the Marion Finance Committee is scheduled for Wednesday, October 7.
Marion Finance Committee
By Mick Colageo