Selectman Sykes cites litany of concerns

Harrison Selectman Richard Sykes challenged decisions made by Town Manager George “Bud” Finch at the May 14 meeting.

Harrison Selectman Richard Sykes challenged decisions made by Town Manager George “Bud” Finch at the May 14 meeting.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

With only a few weeks to go before stepping down, Harrison Selectman Rick Sykes laid out a long list of concerns on May 14 about how town business has been conducted during his one-year stint on the board.

Sykes spent nearly an hour questioning the actions of both selectmen and Town Manager George “Bud” Finch over their management of a wide range of issues, most of them related to town spending. Perhaps his most serious complaint was that Finch had not given the board a copy of the management letter that accompanied an audit report completed last August.

Sykes said that when he obtained a copy of the letter on his own, it listed eight “significant” deficiencies in internal fiscal control of town spending, along with one “material weakness” that he characterized as a “very serious” problem needing to be corrected.

Other concerns brought up by Sykes included:

  • Delays in completion of a study of operations at the transfer station being overseen by Finch with help from a paid consultant;
  • Lack of a town policy on when projects have to be put out to bid;
  • Money spent to remodel the town offices that had not been approved by voters;
  • A practice of transferring money from one account to another to cover overdrafts;
  • Whether a per diem clerk is needed at the town office.

Regarding the omission of the management letter accompanying the audit report, Finch apologized and said “I take full responsibility” for not getting it to the board. He said, however, that the auditors will be at the board’s May 28 meeting to present their findings. The major deficiency, he added, had to do with implementing a purchasing policy.

Sykes said after the audit was completed in August 2014, he asked for, and received a copy of the document in February of this year, but it did not contain the management letter, which he said is a “critical document” needed in order for the board to make decisions on procedural changes. The letter cited the need for separate accounting of cash transactions, better management of bulk fuel purchases and other concerns.

“Why weren’t we a participant in reviewing that?” asked Sykes. “I’m disappointed the town manager didn’t present this for our review.”

Finch said the town corrects any audit deficiencies as they are brought up. “The audit firm will always find something to write up, because that’s their job,” Finch said.

Regarding the study of transfer station operations, Finch said the goal has been to look at every aspect of how the facility is run, and make changes to ensure compliance with Department of Environmental Protection rules.

“We want to be the good example (of a town) trying to correct these things” that are out of compliance, such as people climbing inside the metal bin and lack of fenced security caused primarily by the encroachment of the pipeline on the Harrison Road property.

The major issues the board will need to decide after the study is completed in July are whether one or two employees need to be working there and the hours of operation. New compactors may also need to be purchased, Finch added.

Regarding overdrafts, Sykes said, “When you add money to another account to cover an overdraft, I have some problem with that,” in that voters should have some say in the decision.

Board Chairman Bill Winslow said the board’s authority to transfer funds is approved at Town Meeting, and any debate on the matter ought to be reserved until this year’s Town Meeting on Wednesday, June 10.

Still, other selectmen wanted to challenge Sykes on this point. Member Richard St. Pierre said the town’s plowing account ran short because of the amount of snow last winter, and “To have a special town meeting (to authorize transferring funds) is foolish.”

Sykes also spoke against the lack of a bidding policy on town projects, citing the recent paving bids that went out for work on Edes Falls Road. Six major contractors were asked to submit bids, which left out other companies that might have bid on the project. Winslow said there is no policy requiring a public bidding process on projects over a certain amount.

Selectman Kathy Laplante said, “The people voted us to act in the best interests of the town. You’re questioning my integrity and the integrity of every person on this board.”

Finch said he has a mandate to hold the line on budget expenses, and “I’m not going to add $50,000 to the budget this year because we had a bad winter” the year before.

Selectman Matthew Frank said it’s simply a reality that the town has to deal with emergencies from time to time, such as when there was a leak in the roof of the fire station. “The septic system died twice in this building,” he said, referring to the town office.

Sykes, however, wasn’t budging on the matter of spending unfunded money this year to remodel the town offices. The renovations were paid for out of the deferred maintenance account.

“I asked Bud the cost, and he said $62,000. Then I did a little research, and found that it’s closer to $80,000,” said Sykes of the renovations. “That was never listed on the warrant.”

Sykes noted that $50,000 is listed in this year’s warrant for deferred maintenance, and asked Finch what he planned to spend the money on.

“I don’t know,” said Finch. “There’s nothing specific.”

Winslow said the board could draw up a list if that would satisfy Syke’s concerns, “But we still need to have some flexibility because of things like a failed septic system.” St. Pierre added, “We don’t have a crystal ball” to tell them what the needed repairs will be.

Sykes stood his ground, saying, “I don’t want another situation where we remodel the town office in an account that was never put before voters.”

When Sykes said the job responsibilities of the per diem town office clerk were “not very productive,” and should be eliminated at Town Meeting, Winslow countered by saying, “I think you’re taking some of this a little more personal than you need to.”

Sykes had a number of residents in the audience who spoke in general support of the questions he was raising. One of them was Eddie Rolfe, who commented, “Well, it’s going to be a very interesting Town Meeting.”

Please follow and like us: