A financial management review conducted by the state’s Department of Revenue could lead to changes in policies and procedures in the way Manchester-by-the-Sea is governed.
“They’ve made some good suggestions about ways we could improve or think about certain aspects of town government,” said the Board of Selectmen’s chairwoman, Sue Thorne. “They’ve identified some things we could be thinking about.”
The review was requested by the board at the urging of a citizens advocacy group, Manchester Restoring Obligations to Affordable Reality. It was completed in August, and is posted on the state agency’s website.
Conducted by the Revenue Department’s Division of Local Services, the review relied on interviews and site visits with 17 Manchester-by-the-Sea officials, employees, and other volunteers, including Al Ireton, a member of Manchester ROAR, and focused on the town’s financial offices and the practices and policies that guide municipal decisions. In addition to interviews, it featured a review of documents such as town bylaws, the annual budget, an outside audit from Powers & Sullivan, and an independent credit-rating analysis by Moody’s Investors Service Inc.
The report featured 31 recommendations for change, including establishing a formal capital improvement program, and conducting a substantive review of town bylaws, a townwide risk assessment, and a study to consider creating a town charter. It also recommended bylaw changes, including formalizing the town administrator’s duties and expanding the personnel bylaw.
“It’s a useful tool,” said Paul Barclay, vice chairman of the Board of Selectmen, who said that as the board reviews the report, it is considering adopting some of the recommendations, and may bring some to residents at Town Meeting in April.
Selectmen reviewed approximately half of the report on Oct. 1, and the board plans to review the rest in a future meeting, possibly during its 6 p.m. session Monday in Town Hall on Central Street.
Town Administrator Wayne Melville noted that a review is not intended to go into the depth of an audit, which allows feedback during the draft phase when factual errors or unclear issues may be addressed, and was therefore not as accurate or thorough as an audit would be. Nonetheless, he considers it valuable.
“It will stimulate thought for the future, and gives us ideas on how to make ourselves stronger,” he said.
Noting that the town accountant, Charles Mansfield, and treasurer Jennifer Yaskell are both in their first year in those positions and are establishing their own systems, Melville said that many of the review’s recommendations overlap with efforts already being made, or focus on areas that have already been identified.
“These aren’t deficiencies we’re not aware of, but we’ve been slaying bigger dragons,” Melville said.
Citing two recommendations that the town is already focused on, Thorne noted that the Finance Committee has started work on creating more formal financial policies, and the town is also at work establishing a capital improvement program. Melville said a risk assessment is also underway.
The Board of Selectmen could choose to adopt some of the recommendations on its own, but those that require bylaw changes must be approved by Town Meeting. With Melville planning to retire next year, Thorne noted that recommendations such as the creation of an employee handbook might be a good project for his successor.
The board has taken no votes on which recommendations to pursue, and Thorne noted that she expects some to be adopted, some to go to Town Meeting, and some put off into the future. Others may be discussed but not acted upon, she said.
“We need to decide how much we can really bite off this year,” said Thorne, who said she does not intend to run for reelection next year. “I don’t think we’re in a position to bite off too much, and quite frankly as a departing member of the board, I would be reluctant to put my signature on policy changes or approaches when I’m not going to be around to either help the town benefit from those changes, or put myself as a sitting duck if nobody likes the ideas. There are a couple of good suggestions though.”
Manchester ROAR made the initial request for the review, and asked that a section of the report focus on the town’s approach to unfunded liabilities related to nonpension benefits earned by employees to be distributed upon retirement, which generally take the form of health care and other insurance premiums.
The issue has been an important one for the citizens group, and actions taken by the town were commended by the Revenue Department. It said that actions such as requiring eligible retirees age 65 and over to enroll in Medicare, auditing the group health insurance rolls and dropping ineligible retirees, and negotiating changes in premiums were the types of actions recommended by the department.