Town finance committees – and the Dukes County finance advisory board, for that matter – represent an indispensable hedge against calamitous financial decisions made by each community’s operating political leadership. The finance committee’s most easily recognized role is its mid-winter review of operating budgets for municipal departments. Although committee members have no dispositive control over the spending proposals and revenue projections they confront, the committee has the opportunity to signal to voters its satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the planned outlays. Voters then get to do as they please.
The role in which finance committee members do have an action role is in approving transfers from one budget line item to another, when the former includes more money than is likely to be needed before the end of a fiscal year and the latter has less than it needs.
A collateral value of finance committees is that they can often furnish contenders for operating roles in town government – say, selectmen – who are disciplined by the committee experience and broadly acquainted with the town’s practices, finances, personnel, and anticipated costs. Sound decision making by a government’s chief executives and department heads depends on a clear picture of the town’s fiscal picture.
But, enough about how we think about finance committees today. And leave aside the question of whether all of the seven committees continually meet a high standard of diligence and perception when it comes to town and government financial affairs. All of them can and should do more.
One of the least successful attributes of the town meeting system of government of which we are so fond is that a ready understanding of what’s going on in town affairs is unevenly, even haphazardly distributed across the spectrum of interested parties. The operating parts of town government know what’s up on a day-to-day basis. The finance committee exercises a detailed but only periodically intense scrutiny of town fiscal affairs. The voters – the spare few who attend annual meetings, including significant numbers of the operating and dependent classes of voters – come to their grand decisive annual moment untutored. They know something of the more celebrated issues, something more about the issues that have narrow but important effects on their interests, and little about the rest.
Finance committees ought to do a better job of changing this state of affairs for the better. They could do more for the voters they serve by offering quarterly reviews of the fiscal affairs of the town or the county. Along with discussions of the implications of impending decisions on capital spending, finance committees, with help from town and county treasurers, could quantify the changes in municipal spending patterns and explain the likely effects such changes might have on spending in the coming fiscal year. They could identify liabilities that deserve attention from operating officers, describe historic spending and revenue trends, and alert voters to the details of issues likely to predominate in the next special or annual town meeting. They could describe the implications of off-budget spending that voters will be asked to consider mid-year. The data to support this information outreach to voters is available, and most finance committees have the ability to analyze it and discuss it. Voters need more frequent and more penetrating access to this information, and their oversight representatives, the finance committees, ought to deliver it.