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'Turn up the heat,' says state auditor of accounts

06/07/2007

By Erin Post

The final audit of Moretown's finances-and recommendations on how to improve procedures-should be ready to present to the public within the next month, officials told town residents this week.

It's then up to the select board to work with the town clerk, and possibly a citizen committee, to make suggested changes to the town's accounting and bookkeeping practices, said Fred Duplessis, an auditor with Sullivan Powers and Company.

Duplessis spoke to a crowd of about 30 Moretown residents June 4 along with Tom Salmon, the Vermont state auditor, and attorney Paul Gillies, regarding the town's finances.

In April about 90 residents signed a petition asking for a state audit of the town after the town report failed to include required financial information for the second year in the row. The select board called the meeting to allow citizens an opportunity to ask questions. Although the audit from Sullivan Powers and Company is not yet public information, a draft was released to the select board just prior to the forum.

AUDITOR OFFERS HELP

Salmon told the crowd that staffing limits his office's ability to perform town audits.

"The days of us actually going in to audit a town are mostly in the past," he said, unless fraud or other abuse complaints are involved.

In Moretown, since an audit was already ongoing when his office received the petition, Salmon decided the best approach would be to build on that work. He said he has reviewed the draft audit, interviewed Sullivan Powers and Company accountants as well the town clerk, and is confident that the audit will give the town the information it needs to move forward.

Duplessis said the audit has not revealed any deceptive practices or fraud.   

"We have no indication of any wrongdoing," Duplessis said.

His firm will be recommending that the town create a manual to govern accounting and bookkeeping procedures, he said.

"What's really important for a town is to have checks and balances in place," he said, noting that many towns across the state are struggling with similar issues.

Salmon said his office can serve as a resource as the town works on its system and he recommended community meetings to discuss how to proceed.

Select board chair Paula Mastroberardino said she planned to meet with accountants today to discuss the draft audit, which was released to the select board last week.

Once the board reviews the draft, Duplessis said his firm makes final factual corrections and releases two documents to the public: the audit itself, which includes the data on the town's finances, and a management letter that details recommendations to improve procedures. Both will be available at the town office and may be published on the town website.

TOWN CLERK A 'CENTER OF POWER'

Residents questioned whether the position of town clerk held too much sway in the state of Vermont.

Moretown resident Sandy Reagan said town clerks and treasurers should be subject to the same oversight as other positions with a chain of command. As the system works now, the townspeople themselves are left with that responsibility.

"We've got to have something or somebody over [the town clerk]," she said.

According to state statute, elected town clerks and treasurers operate independently of the select board. They set their own hours and hire their own assistants, said attorney Paul Gillies. In many small towns the same person fills both roles.

He described the town clerk position as "one of those power centers" that is a byproduct of a system that values autonomy in small towns.  

"Unfortunately we are the victim of our own love affair with independence and local control," Gillies said.

The law does allow towns to switch to an appointed town clerk and treasurer who reports to the select board. Gillies said the move requires the town to draft a municipal charter, which must go through a public hearing process and ultimately be approved by the state legislature.

Duplessis said towns may also hire a bookkeeper independent of the treasurer. This does not eliminate the elected position-it simply provides another official to keep records, he said, and poses its own challenges.

"Finding good bookkeepers is really tough," he said. "And when they are out there, they're expensive."

Officials stressed that many towns are struggling with how to adapt their system of elected officials to a 21st-century world that expects town clerks and treasurers to be experts at payroll, investing, bookkeeping, computer systems and more.  

"Unfortunately, things have gotten too complicated," Duplessis said.

OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE

One Moretown resident questioned whether doing away with an elected town clerk and treasurer would benefit the town in the long term.

"To hand over democracy for efficiency, that's a bad goal in my opinion," said Moretown resident David Van Deusen.

Other residents challenged the select board to act on the recommendations in the audit and ensure that the town gets up to date on its accounting practices.

"We've got to get things by the horns," said resident Ron Ward.

Whatever the town decides to do, the goal is to use the audit to move forward, said Salmon.

"You're at the crest of a great opportunity to get people's attention, to turn up the heat," he said.

Contact Erin Post at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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