By Elizabeth F. McNamara
At the Town Council meeting Monday night, Finance Director Patricia Sunderland outlined a number of areas where the town’s Finance Department was having difficulties and, with Town Manager Andrew Nota, three weeks into his new job, explained why a new position of “finance manager” was needed.
In particular, she said the staff needed additional training, especially in the MUNIS software program the town uses. A finance manager would provide training within the finance department and across town departments. Right now, Sunderland said, MUNIS is not being used to its full capacity, an echo of a similar complaint made under former Finance Director Linda Dykeman.
“There are [MUNIS] modules we’re not using that I was using back in North Kingstown in 2006,” Sunderland said Monday. In a letter to Town Manager Nota, Sunderland wrote, “I can conclude that the staff will require training and has not grown with the technological enhancements available possibly due to time constraints.”
Sunderland said the town is behind in state reporting requirements as well.
“We are nowhere near the compliance with state reporting. Nowhere near,” she said.
Nota said Tuesday the town had not done any reporting to the state for fiscal year 2019, which ended June 30. Dykeman resigned her post in November 2018, four-plus months into FY 2019. Sunderland was not hired until April 2019. In the interim, Mike D’Amico was hired as finance consultant, with a focus on the 2020 budget and the five union contracts up for renegotiation.
Nota said Tuesday Sunderland was working now on the required report for the 2019 audit and would then work backwards to comply with 2019 reporting requirements, and only after that move onto FY 2020.
Both Sunderland and Nota said the consolidation of the town and school finance offices, while perhaps laudable in intent, left the finance department woefully understaffed. That consolidation took place in 2018, under previous Town Manager Gayle Corrigan.
“I think we’ve all learned a lesson and as we move into the next budget cycle I’ll be able to articulate in much more depth the impact of some of the consolidation that occurred and the negative impact that has had,” Nota said at the meeting. On Tuesday, he elaborated:
“The instability created in both the town and school finance areas was an unfortunate result of the changes that were initiated. I believe the impact of these changes on both town/school operations was underestimated and … just recently become clearly evident. As we now know, it does not take long for this type of action(s), impacting a priority area within a municipal organization, to show itself in many critical areas, thus impacting local service delivery, personnel, and short and long-term operational costs.
The town and school district each have their own finance heads now, after the School Committee and Town Council decide earlier this year to again separate out the two jobs.
The finance manager position is the only new position being sought.
“With the addition of this new finance manager position, the department will be sufficiently staffed once the financial management systems are upgraded and the functionality of the overall system is fully leveraged,” Nota said Tuesday. He said the position would be budget neutral for the current fiscal year due to other personnel adjustments but that it would be accounted for in the 2021 budget.
The town’s finance department currently has six employees, including Sunderland; there were seven employees in 2017. By comparison, South Kingstown had a 10-member finance department when Sunderland was finance director there (she left that job to come to East Greenwich in March). South Kingstown is significantly larger than East Greenwich but that office did not handle accounts payable and payroll for the schools, as has been done by the town finance department even before consolidation.
In her letter to Nota, Sunderland wrote:
There are so many processes that need to be streamlined … in order to be a successful department functioning at a high level which is a necessity given all of the reporting mandates forced upon us from multiple entities. I do not want to continue putting out fires as they occur. I want to provide the staff with the tools they need in order to be successful and to stay on top of their workload and in order to do that we need a resource to support our initiatives.
Sunderland’s letter to Nota can be found Finance Department memo.
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