BELLOWS FALLS — The Rockingham Select Board and Bellows Falls Village Trustees took their first steps Tuesday evening to address the financial mess left behind by former Finance Director Shannon Burbela.
At the suggestion of Municipal Manager Scott Pickup, the two boards, meeting jointly Tuesday evening, established a new finance committee to work with Pickup on the financial issues, as well as find a new finance director.
Pickup said the town and village needed to “re-establish baseline credibility.”
The town and village have brought in the New England Management Resource Center to help sort through the extensive problems uncovered in the finances, which extend from balancing its bank accounts to misfiled and miscategorized revenue and expenses, lack of correct tax status, and overcharged credit card fees.
In addition to the work by NEMRC, an audit of village finances for the year ending last June also found widespread problems dating back to 2019.
While Burbela’s name wasn’t mentioned during Tuesday’s meeting, Pickup just called it “the process of transition.” He said earlier in the week that there was no evidence of malfeasance. “Transparency here is the goal,” he said.
“Current practices,” he said, “need to do better.” Pickup has been manager since last October, and Burbela has been on medical leave for a lot of 2021.
He said “a fairly intense amount of work” needs to be done to avoid repeating mistakes, although he didn’t refer to anything specific.
He said that some of the financial items have been the subject of complaints to him by the two boards since he arrived. The boards repeatedly asked Burbela for additional financial information and reports, and she often responded she was so overworked she would have to get caught up soon.
He said the challenge is the “re-establish” the accuracy of the town and village’s financial books. “Transparency here is the goal,” he said.
While Burbela is not longer involved in the municipalities’ finances, she is still acting as a consultant on several pending matters, including the financial books and a lawsuit against various members of the police department that was filed against the village while she was human resources manager.
Pickup told the boards he was also bringing in the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank to make sure there is “transparency” in addressing the issues. “I asked the bond bank to come in and work with us,” he said.
The manager has proposed the new finance committee to work closely with him, and has suggested one person from each board. The boards debated whether two people from each board was warranted or needed, and decided on the smaller committee.
The village of Bellows Falls in particular owes millions of dollars to the bond bank for recent work done on its municipal water and sewer systems.
The boards made no public statement about Burbela’s departure on June 14, which Pickup earlier in the week said was mutual. Burbela, who was finance director for about 2 1/2 years, came on board a few weeks after a professional audit of the village’s finances for the year 2019-2020 found many glaring deficiencies and lack of standard accounting practices.
Peter Golec, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, volunteered to be the select board’s representative to the new finance committee. Trustee James “Jiggs” McAuliffe also volunteered to be the trustees’ representative.
Village President Deborah Wright noted McAuliffe was on the committee in 2018 that interviewed Burbela for the job. McAuliffe noted that Cynthia Stoddard, who is the NEMRC employee now working in the town office to straighten out the finances, was on the same committee.