Oak Bluffs finances receive high marks from auditors

Disciplined spending and continued accounting improvements have the town’s fiscal fortunes trending upward.

At the request of local residents, selectmen endorsed the design of a third staircase on North Bluff seawall across from Saco Ave. — Photo by Sam Moore

“Things went extremely well this year,” Jim Powers, partner in Wakefield-based accounting firm Powers & Sullivan, told Oak Bluffs selectmen at their regular meeting on Tuesday night. Mr. Powers, along with manager Todd Jurczyk, was on hand to present selectmen with the town’s annual exit interview — the town’s financial report card for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015.

“We’ve seen great changes in the past year. If you weren’t in such good shape, there’s no way we could have turned this [audit] around in six weeks,” Mr. Powers said, adding that there were no “findings” on the town’s balance sheet, “which is as good as you can get.”

“All your disclosures are in compliance,” he said. “If  there are any errors, they are not substantive.”

The most significant improvement Mr. Powers cited is the expediency with which the town accounts were reconciled in FY15, an issue that has dogged the town for years. This year, town accounts were reconciled in October, whereas last year, town accounts weren’t squared until March, and free cash wasn’t certified until just before annual town meeting.

“The only reason we’re here now is because we scheduled our time based on your past history,” Mr. Powers said. “The town wasn’t late. We apologize for that.”  

Speaking to The Times on Wednesday, town administrator Robert Whritenour attributed the improvement to the diligence of the town’s financial team — town accountant Arthur Gallagher, town tax collector Cheryll Sashin, town assessor David Bailey, and town treasurer Sharon Jackson. “It was a concerted effort,” he said. “We met on a regular basis and everybody really worked hard on this.”

Mr. Whritenour said an evaluation by outside consultants, Nashua, New Hampshire-based Melanson Heath and company, and the integration of MUNIS software, which better connects town financial departments, were also instrumental in the improvement. “There were complexities in managing a lot of different bank accounts that were addressed,” he said. “The improved efficiency really helps the town. Now we just have to make sure these improvements are permanent. We’re a small town, we don’t have a lot of margin, so we need to make sure we take good care of everything we have and keep the town stable. It’s another area of our little town joining the 21st century.”

Mr. Whritenour said he hopes to have the FY16 accounts reconciled in September.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Mr. Powers said the $2.5 million in the town’s general fund, which he deemed the most important fund on the books, is a healthy amount for a town with a $26 million budget. The town’s certified free cash for FY15 was $347,789.

In 2011, the year  Mr. Whritenour was officially hired  and town accountant  Arthur Gallagher came on board, the town general fund was $400,000 in the red, and there was a free cash deficit of nearly $900,000.

One of the few strikes against the town is the cash deficit in the police detail fund, which is the amount owed to the town for police details at special events.

“The police detail fund is the only one that has a little sting to it,” Mr. Powers said. “This happens a lot.”

According to the management letter, the police department is pursuing a total of $55,000. Prior billings totaling $16,000 will have to be written off and $27,000 still has to be identified. The report recommended clearing the books with a transfer from the general fund, which requires a vote at town meeting.  

Mr. Whritenour agrees with the strategy. He told The Times that the police detail fund deficit has been on the books since he took over as town administrator, and it’s an issue he’s dealt with frequently in other towns. “We’ve been honing it down and it’s going to be a point of emphasis this year,” he said. “The department has changed its procedure to require more prompt and upfront payments. In fairness to the police department, a lot of this is long-standing debt that was never cleared up.”

Mr. Powell concluded his presentation at the selectmen’s meeting on an upbeat note. “You’ve had an excellent year, and this report is a lot thinner than it used to be,” he said. “Most of the big items have been addressed. You’ve established a good track record and your books are following suit, and that’s a good thing.”

New beach stairs

In other business, selectmen unanimously voted to accept two bids for town improvements.

A $440,000 bid was accepted from Falmouth-based Lawrence Lynch for the construction of a long-awaited sidewalk on Dukes County Avenue in Oak Bluffs, which will run from Tony’s Market to School Street. Before the sidewalk can cover the short remaining distance to the harbor, a drainage study has to be done due to the heavy flooding that comes with every substantial rainfall. Lawrence Lynch was the only bidder for the project. Highway department supervisor Richie Combra said the work will begin in early April and will be completed by summer.

Selectmen also unanimously moved to accept a $68,000 dollar bid from Barrington, Rhode Island-based Plan B Construction to build a staircase at Pay Beach. The company has also done work at the Sailing Camp and Niantic Park. Although Plan B submitted the lowest bid, the amount was still more than the $50,000 budgeted by the Parks Commission.  The Finance and Advisory Committee approved a transfer from the town reserve fund to cover the shortfall. The stairs will also completed by summer.

Another beach staircase, this one at the North Bluff seawall, is now currently in the design phase. The action is largely the result of North Bluff resident Dr. Jason Lew, who has strenuously lobbied the town for changes in the project. Currently, there are two staircases planned, at each end of the seawall. Town officials have been receptive to Dr. Lew’s request that a staircase be placed at the midpoint of the wall, opposite Saco Avenue. His requests to lower the seawall on the northern end of the structure, and to make the 12-foot boardwalk more narrow, did not fall on receptive ears.