Vernon auditors lobby voters on budget
VERNON -- The fate of the town police department has garnered the most headlines in the debate over Vernon's fiscal year 2015 budget.
But the town's elected auditors are issuing a reminder that they, too, have much at stake in the special Town Meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. May 5 at Vernon Elementary School.
The budget that was approved at Town Meeting cuts their salaries drastically in favor of an outside audit. The elected auditors' board is asking voters to reverse that at the special meeting, arguing that they perform a vital service that cannot be replicated by a private company.
"If the town doesn't want the auditors, then so be it," said Phyllis Newton, a Vernon auditor since 1985. "But I think it should be the town's decision."
Selectboard members continue to argue that Vernon, where budget cuts are a necessity in advance of the closure of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, no longer can afford to spend $35,000 on the town auditors' office.
"As a Selectboard member, I would say (the auditors) have every right to try to justify their existence," said Patty O'Donnell, Selectboard chairwoman. "But we spend a whole lot more money in that department, along with the listers' office, than any of our surrounding towns do."
Vernon's Town Meeting lasted three nights, but it wouldn't be the final word on fiscal 2015 municipal spending due to a subsequent petition for reconsideration. That petition compelled the Selectboard to schedule the May 5 special meeting, where voters will be able to debate and change anything in Vernon's proposed budget.
That includes the controversial budget-amendment vote at Town Meeting to slash the town police department's budget by $262,095, leaving just $40,000 to seek outside police protection for Vernon. Police supporters were behind the push for budget reconsideration.
But there also was a successful petition for reconsideration of Article 10 from Town Meeting. That article had sought an appropriation of $35,000 for the elected auditors, which would replace the Selectboard's suggested appropriation of $2,700 for that office. It also would delete $20,000 that the Selectboard had set aside for an outside audit.
That article was passed over at Town Meeting. During subsequent debate on the proposed budget, voters considered and then rejected an amendment to restore the auditors' funding.
But Newton believes many voters were confused by that amendment and discussion.
"I just felt, myself, that people really didn't know what a 'yes' vote and what a 'no' vote meant," she said. "And that's why we want to see it revisited."
That means revisiting a discussion that centers on one question: Who should be reviewing Vernon's books?
Selectboard members say that function can and should be handled by a private auditing firm, and at lower expenditure than the elected auditors' office requires.
Cost-cutting has taken priority in Vernon, with Vermont Yankee scheduled to close by year's end. In preparing for the fiscal year 2015 budget, Vernon Selectboard members visited Dummerston, Putney and Guilford to examine how those towns allocate their resources.
One result was a suggested reliance on an annual, outside audit. In other towns, O'Donnell says, such audits "function well -- they provide all of the necessary services."
"This is really how Vernon is going to survive," she added. "We can't afford to be making full-time jobs out of what are very part-time positions."
O'Donnell also rejects the argument that Vernon, due to its numerous funds and unusual amount of revenue, is unique. With Yankee's closure, and with the resulting, eventual loss of tax proceeds, "the argument that we have a lot more money is not an argument anymore," O'Donnell said.
"Auditing those funds once a year by the outside audit is just fine," she said.
The auditors beg to differ.
"I consider myself a watchdog," Newton said. "We reconcile the checkbook, and the town checking account averages 200 to 300 checks a month. That's a lot of volume there."
The board lists a variety of other functions including review of 29 town funds; quarterly review of the town clerk's remittances and delinquent tax collector's records; yearly examination of the Vernon Seniors' and Vernon Historians' records; and evaluation of library expenditures.
The auditors also review payroll warrants, contracts, time sheets and purchase orders, and they put together the annual town report.
If given an allocation of just $2,700, or roughly $900 for each auditor, "it equates to an hour a week, generally speaking," said Auditor Nancy Gassett, who joined the board last year. "We couldn't even do the town report for that."
To make the case for fully funding the auditors' office, the board has distributed a bullet-pointed document comparing their work with that of an "outside auditing service."
First on the list: Elected auditors "have a direct, personal interest in the financial affairs of the town," they say, while an outside service has a "paid business relationship" with the town.
The elected board offers "consistent, year-round examination and monitoring," the auditors argue, while an outside service offers "once-a-year, general, overall analysis."
The auditors also penned a lengthy report occupying pages 28 and 29 of the town report, detailing their duties and their recent reviews of the James Cusick Scholarship, the town "Gasboy" fuel system and payroll. Additionally, the board argues that there are deficiencies in town governance including "no consistent policy, procedure or designated person in place for effectively managing town bids and contracts."
As elected auditors, "you're supposed to give the people of the town an overall financial condition of the town (based on) what you've reviewed. How do you do that if you don't have the time to do it, and you're not given the opportunity to do it?" Gassett asked.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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