Insider's Guide to the Finance Committee

The Finance Committee (FinCom) is a nine member committee, each member appointed by the Town Moderator for a term of three years. According to the Town Bylaws, the Fincom is charged with considering “any and all municipal questions for the purpose of making reports and recommendations." Most notably among the duties of the FinCom includes its duty to review and make recommendations concerning the budget for the annual Town Meeting. In addition the FinCom is responsible for “the review of and recommendations concerning any other matter of a financial nature arising at the annual meeting or at any special meeting, and the preparation of long range fiscal plans for the Town."

In Acton the FinCom does not actually prepare budgets but instead conducts review and critical analysis. This is not uniformly the case throughout the state. The Finance Committee in many cities and towns actually prepares and presents budgets to the voters at Town Meeting. Taking the appointment of Fincom members out of the political arena gives the Moderator the ability to insure that there is a healthy mix of fiscal conservatives and liberals on the Committee at any one time. This results in voters soliciting FinCom recommendations and seriously considering these recommendations when voting at Town Meeting.

The FinCom receives reports quarterly from the Board of Selectmen for spending associated with the municipal budget and the local school budget. These reports are required by the town Bylaws Chapter Q. These quarterly reports provide the ability to monitor town spending to identify potential problems early. The town Bylaw does not require the regional school system to provide this information. However, the region is very cooperative and provides similar information when requested.

One member of the FinCom serves as a Trustee on the Health Insurance Trust. Briefly, Acton self insures for Health Insurance. This means that employees and the government pay Health Insurance premiums into a Trust. Actual claims are paid from the Trust. The Trustees have the responsibility for insuring that the Trust is properly funded and safely invested to insure that current and future obligations are met.

The Chairman and the Vice Chairman serve as FinCom’s representatives on the Acton Leadership Group (ALG). Other members of this group come from the Board of Selectmen, the schools and respective town administrators (i.e. Town Manager, School Superintendent etc.). The purpose of this group is to discuss policy, usually fiscal policy, and try to arrive at consensus; and then bring the results of these discussions to their respective boards. Usually boards support the consensus reached at ALG, which results in a unified presentation to the voters at Town Meeting. The major subjects discussed at ALG include, but are not limited to, revenue allocation, usage of Free Cash, and the need for and the amount and nature of overrides.

Current subjects being discussed by the FinCom include the disposition and use of the excess funds coming from the NESWC Enterprise fund, the development of a capital spending policy and funding procedure including identifying and prioritizing capital projects, developing a policy regarding the use of Free Cash and Stabilization funds, and identifying opportunities for reducing costs by consolidating functions common to the schools and the municipal government (i.e. landscaping, janitorial services etc.).

The FinCom meets approximately every other Tuesday in Town Hall Room 204 at 7:30PM. Meetings are televised on the local cable channel (channel 8). Anyone interested in joining the FinCom should contact the Town Moderator, who typically appoints new members after Town Meeting in April.

1. Quotes in the first paragraph come from Chapter B of the Town of Acton Bylaws

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3/28/2007)

The FinCom is in an awkward position in Acton. It is struggling to perform its traditional role and to make a real difference in town decisions, yet it is clearly overshadowed by the stronger boards (Selectmen and School Committees) which are charged with making the final decisions. FinCom's role is important as a safeguard for citizens and taxpayers when these other boards make decisions that have negative short- or long-term consequences. Because the FinCom members are appointed, they can choose to disregard political pressure in their decision-making. (Some may view this as a potential for abuse, of course.) Since FinCom members don't suggest spending, their role is limited to trying to prevent wasteful or inadvisable spending.

In other towns, however, the Finance Committee plays a stronger role in developing and approving the town budgets, and in forecasting budgets into the future. In Acton, the Selectmen control the budget process from beginning to end, and the ALG purports to do long-range budget forecasts, although they seem to focus only on revenue projections, not expenses.

FinCom's major power is the bully pulpit: the ability to discuss issues and bring them to other town boards or Town Meeting. In the past, FinCom has been instrumental in making some significant changes to policy; but in general, FinCom's role has been curtailed by the emergence of the ALG process, and the role it takes on commenting on the budget rather than preparing the budget for Town Meeting.

As a matter of Board of Selectmen policy, individual board members (including FinCom members) are prohibited from contacting town or school staff on any substantive matters without going through a permission process. While this process does make some sense (you don't want staff constantly bothered by requests from various town boards...they'd never be able to get their work done), it has resulted in a constriction in the flow of information which makes it harder for a board like FinCom to independently research and promote a particular topic. So far this policy has not been overly abused but there is some concern that it could be.