This year’s Town Meeting was, for the most part, uneventful and quiet. Turnout was low. Most people who did attend were on good behavior. The School District and municipal budgets passed without controversy or much comment. One encouraging fact is that our roads budget is down substantially from previous years, due largely to the efforts of our most recent Road Commissioner Tim Cahill, who I think deserves enormous credit.
Most of the questions on our Warning were the standard ones, which sailed through rapidly. There were two exceptions, questions that generated at least some discussion. First, Article 2 proposed that the Town collect its property taxes twice a year rather than the single yearly deadline (October 15) we now have. On the single deadline system, the Town always has cash flow issues starting around May and sometimes earlier, depending on the size of the surplus from the previous year. Collecting another round of taxes in June would alleviate the cash flow problem and would minimize, if not eliminate the need for borrowing. Currently, the Town ends up paying anywhere from $400 to $600 in interest to our tax-anticipation lender.
On the other hand, adding another cycle of tax bills to the mix would add costs for postage, paper and office assistant wages. (And create more work for Sam Swope, our current Treasurer and Valerie Foy, our current delinquent tax collector) It more or less comes out as a wash. Given that there didn’t seem to be any overwhelming taxpayer sentiment for paying taxes twice a year, we voted to keep things the way they are.
Next up involving any debate at all was Article #13, which proposed that our tiny town with its tiny budget ($218,000 this year), appropriate $11,000 this year for a professional audit of the books and then more money in future years for a regular schedule of such professional audits.
This Article was placed on the warning by citizen petition, and many of us were frankly bemused by it. I can only conclude that whomever dreamed it up doesn’t really understand how our Town finances work. In Guildhall, as in most small to medium Vermont towns, we elect auditors whose job it is to act as watchdogs over the Town finances, as well as to prepare the Town Report at end of year. (It’s a lot of work!)
When I saw this Article on the warning, I immediately turned to the Auditors’ Report page of our Town Report to see what our auditors George Blakeslee, Roger Brisson, and Liz Brisson had said about their review of the 2013 financials. There, I found the usual “all is well” language, which reads as follows:
“In accordance with 24 V.S.A. 1681, we have examined the accounts and records of the Town and School District of Guildhall, Vermont. To the best of our knowledge, the statements and reports herein show the accurate financial position of the Town and School District for the terms January 1, 2013-December 31, 2013 and July 1, 2012-June 30, 2013, respectively.”
In short, the auditors found nothing concerning this year. From personal experience (I was the town treasurer for a period of six years, ending in 2012), I know very well that our auditors are hard-working, detail-oriented and super-competent. Ironically, as auditor Roger Brisson pointed out during the meeting when he rose to speak, our local elected auditors do a more thorough job than a Certified Public Accountant would do, because a typical CPA review audit involves only a random sampling (usually 15-20%) of all transactions/entries. In contrast, our elected auditors review every single disbursement, every warrant, every invoice, every bank statement, every reconciliation, and every deposit ticket. I’ve sat with our auditors hour after hour as they pore through the books, painstakingly reviewing every single item. They do this work quietly, invisible to most people in town, and they do it for almost no pay.
That’s not to say a professional audit is never necessary. If the auditors identify some big, unresolvable problems or possible malfeasance, they alert us. That’s what happened, for example, for the fiscal year 2006 books. When the elected auditors were preparing their report, they found so many inconsistencies and discrepancies that they were not comfortable signing off with the usual “all is well” language. Instead, they wrote in the Town Report that they recommended a professional audit. We had the audit, to the tune of $6,000.
Having professional audits on an “as-needed” basis is the way to go for a town of our size and budget. Regular professional audits, without a good reason, are just too expensive.
In the end, the Article was soundly defeated, which wasn’t surprising, since no petitioner or citizen spoke in defense of it in any specific way, or put forth any good reason for it.
We thanked our moderator George Blakeslee (who did his usual fabulous job), adjourned the meeting, and went home.