Town urged to centralize finances
Treasurer chafes at state report
A report by the state Department of Revenue recommending that Arlington consolidate its financial operations is drawing fire from the town’s three-term treasurer, whose elected position would be converted to an appointed job under the proposal.
Stephen Gilligan, the town’s treasurer and tax collector since 2006, said the recommendations included in the state report completed in late January would do away with checks and balances that have been in place in Arlington’s government for decades and trade them for practices that are best suited for other communities.
“The DOR uses a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach for both its analysis and recommendations,’’ Gilligan said.
The report by the Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services made 15 recommendations to improve Arlington’s financial operations, including consolidating finance officers under a finance director or deputy town manager, as is the practice in comparable communities such as Brookline, Needham, and Lexington.
Like those three communities, Arlington has an AAA bond rating, but the town’s treasurer is elected, its comptroller overseeing the town’s financial activity is appointed by the Board of Selectmen, and the assessor is appointed by the elected Board of Assessors.
“Arlington today is as decentralized as any small Western Massachusetts town,’’ said Rick Kingsley, the DOR’s municipal data management and technical assistance bureau chief, who led the study on Arlington’s financial operations.
Last spring, Arlington Town Meeting voted in favor of asking Town Manager Brian Sullivan to research consolidating town and school financial operations. Sullivan, who is retiring later this month, said the town asked the Department of Revenue to assist with the study because of the state’s expertise in studying hundreds of municipalities.
After visiting with the town and reviewing its financial practices, Kingsley’s team recommended Arlington should hold off on considering a merger between town and school financial operations until the town finance departments have been reorganized.
The report said municipalities such as Arlington can ill-afford to have its finance officers operating autonomously.
“With the fifth largest population among Massachusetts towns and a total [fiscal] 2012 budget of more than $135 million, we find it surprising that Arlington has no formal means to coordinate complex financial operations that cross departments,’’ the report stated. “This is not intended as a criticism of the performance of incumbent finance officials or the town manager, but rather speaks more broadly to the hurdles that the town’s structure poses to coordinated and effective management.’’
The state recommended consolidating operations by making Arlington’s three-member Board of Assessors appointed positions, and giving the town manager authority to appoint the director of assessing and the treasurer position. According to the report, there is a clear trend in the state to do away with elected treasurer positions for several reasons, including the requirement of skills needed to perform the job.
“While Arlington is fortunate to have able department heads that care about the town and doing a good job, there is no guarantee that similarly qualified individuals will step forward when the incumbent resigns or chooses not to pursue reelection,’’ the report stated.
But Gilligan argues that Massachusetts still has an elected state treasurer, and a scenario in which a person without the needed financial qualifications would be elected as Arlington’s treasurer “would be a stretch.’’
“The town of Arlington has adept and intelligent voters,’’ Gilligan said.
Selectmen voiced support for most of the Department of Revenue recommendations at their board meeting Monday, but Selectwoman Annie LaCourt and Selectmen Kevin Greeley showed some opposition to converting the elected Board of Assessors into an appointed board.
LaCourt said she thinks there is a “big difference’’ in an elected board that must conduct its business in public meetings and an individual who is elected to do what is really a full-time job requiring certain skills.
Selectman Dan Dunn, a former member of the town’s Finance Committee, said in a telephone interview Thursday that consolidating the town’s financial operations would increase efficiencies, and the town could still maintain checks and balances by keeping some spots, such as the comptroller’s position, appointed by selectmen.
Board of Selectmen chairwoman Clarissa Rowe said the recommendations will need to go before Town Meeting and Arlington voters for approval before they could be implemented.
Sullivan is accepting comments on the state’s recommendations until Feb. 22 before putting together a report for Town Meeting this spring. The full report can be viewed on the town’s website at www.arlingtonma.gov.
Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe.com.