Boards debate finance service cost

In a contentious joint meeting last week, Milton school and selectboard members met to find cost effective ways to handle finance services between the two entities, emerging with no solution yet.

The May 8 meeting was the first of its kind in the last two years, selectboard chairman Darren Adams said. The hour-long heated discussion that ensued was one members said was long overdue.

The debate centers on a disagreement over how much the district should pay for the finance services provided by the town. The question has school board members researching other options, a departure from an agreement in place since 2000.

Currently, two of the town’s five finance employees process school payroll and accounts payable. The town bills the district for the hours spent on school finances, a budgeted $180,000 annual expense, town finance director Sarah Macy said. The sum also includes recreation, building and grounds fees.

For fiscal year 2017, however, the school will be billed $20,000 less.

Macy billed the school a six-month total rather than an annual bill, which her predecessor did in FY16. The 2000 agreement states it should be billed in two installments. Her closer look uncovered a discrepancy in the school finance actual costs, which she totaled closer to $160,000.

After some debate, the six-month bill was withdrawn after both boards agreed to a flat rate of $160,000 for FY17.

The $180,000 amount was based on an older structure with fewer finance staff, Macy said.

Even with the $20,000 in savings, school trustees are doing their “due diligence” and looking at possible cheaper alternatives to using town services, school board chairwoman Lori Donna said. According to superintendent Ann Bradshaw, the district is waiting on numbers from two outside groups.

Having an in-house finance employee could possibly alleviate the school’s need for extra office assistance as well, Donna said.

The town employs one full-time person dedicated to the school’s payroll and student activities fund. Since town manager Donna Barlow Casey’s March departure, the town increased hours for the second employee who handles school accounts payable, Macy said.

The selectboard agreed to find a way to make up the $20,000 the town loses from the initial $180,000 agreement, a number booked in both the town and school FY17 budgets. Some of which, Turner said, may come from unanticipated revenue from tax sales for the town’s delinquent tax collection.

Both Bradshaw and Donna expressed concern the district wasn’t presented with a proposal from the town for FY18 finance services, which the agreement from 2000 states is necessary.

As such, the parties disagree on how to reconcile the FY18 balance. The school budget shows a $140,000 expenditure for finances, but voters approved a town budget that counts on the original $180,000 in revenue.

The selectboard again extended the offer to charge $160,000 and consume a total of $40,000 in lost revenue, but a final decision on the matter will be made at a second joint meeting, scheduled for July 31.

Both boards will then discuss a plan for FY19. School trustees and administration will decide whether to keep services with the town or seek an alternative option.

To ensure matching budgets in the future, acting town manager Don Turner said FY19 would involve a one-year agreement that reflects both fees for finance and recreation.

Disparity arose over the town using the school’s facilities and fields for recreational activities and vice versa. The question centers on whether or not these costs essentially cancel one another out, each entity paying its fair share.

Turner hopes to update the 2000 agreement on how to proceed in the future, he said. Macy agreed, saying 17 years shouldn’t have elapsed between the two conversations.

Going forward, Adams said it’s possible the two entities could find efficiencies with the school’s fees for buildings, grounds and other services.

“Everybody was keenly aware that it’s one taxpayer that pays both bills, and that’s the most important thing I saw out of that meeting,” Adams said.

Discussion was heated, but Turner said gathering everyone around one table opened lines of communication and allowed officials from both parties to speak their minds.

“It’s out in the air now,” he said. “It’s transparent, and now we can move on in a meaningful direction.”

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