WESTERLY — The role of the Board of Finance was a central topic of discussion Monday both before and during a joint meeting of the board and the Town Council.
The joint meeting to discuss the water and sewer budgets, which is required by the Town Charter, typically follows a meeting of the board dedicated to the two budgets but the board never conducted specific reviews of the budgets this year because the Town Council approved the two spending plans before the board could schedule a review and request a joint meeting.
Monday’s joint meeting was requested by the Town Council after its members became aware that finance board members had grown disgruntled. Last week, the council postponed approving the water and sewer rates for 2018-19 until it explored whether a joint meeting could be conducted.
On Monday, finance board member Kenneth Swain told the council that he initially had questions about the use of the Water Department’s fund balance as well as an increase in the ad valorem tax charged to sewer system users. It’s those types of questions the board usually brings up when it reviews the budgets with Paul Corina, Public Works director. Swain said Corina provided answers to his questions while the board was waiting for its turn Monday with the council.
The council’s handling of the water and sewer budgets was a factor in former finance board Chairman Jay Goodman’s decision to resign, Goodman said last week. He also cited an overall lack of cooperation from school officials and the Town Council and noted that town officials recently floated the idea of eliminating the board from future budget deliberations as a potential Town Charter revision item.
Richard Smith, a former member and chairman of the finance board, reviewed the board’s history with the council on Monday. The board was established in the late 1960s as part of a charter revision initiative that also saw the transfer of municipal budget approval from voters at large in a town meeting to the Town Council.
“That proposal was controversial because a lot of the citizens weren’t so happy to give up their role in approving the budget, so the charter revision commission came up with a compromise, and that was that the citizens of Westerly would give up their democratic right to vote on the budget and cede it to the Town Council, and in exchange for that, there would be an independent, non-partisan review of the budget, and that would be performed by the Board of Finance,” Smith said.
The board also adds continuity to the budget process, Smith said, noting that during the nine years that he served on the board with Swain, the board interacted with four town managers, four superintendents of school, and five finance directors.
“I know that frustrations can crop up when the system doesn’t work they way you think it should or there are conflicting personalities or competing priorities, and that can make us question the system, but I think the appropriate response is to try to make it work better … try to rebuild the collaborative relationships that are necessary to provide the best results for the citizens,” Smith said.
Councilor Philip Overton said the board plays an important role as watchdogs.
“I play close attention to their recommendations,” Overton said.
Councilor Jack Carson made similar remarks, saying the board’s knowledge of financial matters far exceeds that of most council members.
Finance bpard member Paula Brouillette asked the council to consider implementing a better system of long-term capital-expenditure planning. Councilor William Aiello said those plans should be made by school and town officials with input from the Planning Board. The Board of Finance, Aiello said, should review the plans after they are submitted.